Movie Review: The Spiderwick Chronicles: The IMAX Experience
By Tasha Robinson, Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
Warping popular books into nearly unrecognizable forms is a grand old tradition in Hollywood, where few novels make it to the screen even remotely intact. But while Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi's best-selling series, "The Spiderwick Chronicles," hasn't escaped the adaptation curse, it hasn't been harmed either. The on-screen version barely resembles that of their five lavishly illustrated children's books, but it keeps the broadest outlines of their plot in place and finds room within that framework for a spirited, high-flying fantasy.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" child star Freddie Highmore plays cerebral young animal lover Simon Grace and his twin brother, Jared, a sullen kid prone to physical violence after the divorce of his parents. Unable to afford New York life on her own, his mother (Mary-Louise Parker) takes the boys and their teenage sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), to live in a rundown country mansion owned by a distant relative tucked away in an asylum. Inevitably, weird things start happening, and Jared uncovers a book that serves as the key to all the strangeness - a guide to the faerie world, scrupulously researched and handwritten by his great-great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick.
The book has been hidden for 80 years, but almost the second Jared unearths it, creepy creatures start coming after the book, spurred on by an ogre called Mulgarath, who wants to use its secrets to destroy all the other faeries. Before long, Jared and his siblings - plus an alternately helpful and harmful CGI house sprite enthusiastically voiced by Martin Short - are fighting more to save their own lives than to protect the book.
The film version of "Spiderwick" may disappoint children who loved the books, given all the key fantasy creatures it omits, from dragons to dwarfs to elves to the gentle unicorn and Lewis Carroll-esque phooka. For all the problems Arthur Spiderwick causes in the movie, he seems to preside over a much less complicated faerie world than his literary counterpart.
But it's more surprising that the screenwriters, including, astonishingly, fiercely principled indie-film writer-director John Sayles, have restructured the story to make Jared the sole hero, who accomplishes on his own nearly everything that he, Simon and Mallory do together in the books.
"Spiderwick" is a fast-moving adventure with more than dynamic glitz to recommend it. In the wake of "The Lord of the Rings," children's live-action fantasy films have all started to look alike - there isn't a lot to visually distinguish the polished fantasy beasties in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" from the ones in "Bridge To Terabithia" or "The Golden Compass" or "The Water Horse." "Spiderwick" is no exception in that department - the faerie creatures produced by Industrial Light and Magic and Tippett Studio are intricately realized and utterly convincing.
But more important, its human characters are just as convincing. Highmore's dual role doesn't always work - he and his "twin" never quite seem to make eye contact - but the rest of the Spiderwick" casting is spot on. The ever-reliable David Strathairn brings Arthur Spiderwick a sort of charming, baffled dignity, and Short, Nick Nolte and Seth Rogen all give their CGI creations plenty of outsize personality. That personality pervades the big, colorful, thrilling world on the screen. It isn't quite the world of the books. But it's a perfectly magical and exciting one in its own right.
MPAA rating: PG (for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements).
Running time: 1:37.
Starring: Freddie Highmore (Jared/Simon); Mary-Louise Parker (Helen); Nick Nolte (voice of Mulgarath); Joan Plowright (Aunt Lucinda); David Strathairn (Arthur Spiderwick); Seth Rogen (voice of Hogsqueal); Martin Short (voice of Thimbletack).
Directed by Mark Waters; screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles; photographed by Caleb Deschanel; production design by James Bissell; edited by Michael Kahn; music by James Horner; produced by Mark Canton, Larry Franco and Ellen Goldsmith-Vein. A Paramount Pictures release.