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Arts & Culture

The Spiderwick Chronicles

I will confess to not having read The Spiderwick Chronicles books, but I was always intrigued by their storyline and artwork. What appealed to me about the film adaptation when I first heard about it was the choice of people involved in bringing it to the screen. The studio didn't go for an action director or a flashy newcomer but rather with Mark Waters, a filmmaker who got his start in the indie film world with House of Yes . Waters also had a mainstream hit with Mean Girls , a smart teen comedy. But neither film was a fantasy work; both films had a sense of being grounded in the real world. Then the studio turned to real writers to adapt the books - Karey Kirkpatrick and John Sayles. Kirkpatrick wrote the clever scripts for Chicken Run and James and the Giant Peach, while Sayles is a veteran independent filmmaker with a knack for good writing ( Lone Star, The Secret of Roan Innish, Brother From Another Planet ). There's a third writer credited, David Berenbaum, but his main claim to fame was writing the mediocre Elf and the downright bad Haunted Mansion, so I didn't consider him as a real plus. But there were also such top-notch tech talents as cinematographer Caleb Deschanel ( The Right Stuff, The Black Stallion ), editor Michael Kahn ( Raiders of the Lost Ark ), creature maker Phil Tippett ( Star Wars, Dragonslayer ), and effects giant Industrial Light and Magic ( Star Wars ). Add to that actors such as Joan Plowright, David Strathairn, Mary Louise Parker, Sarah Bolger (from In America ), and Freddie Highmore (from Finding Neverland ) - none of them big box office draws - and it sounded like a team that was more interested in creating a good movie rather than a movie franchise.

Jared (Freddie Higmore) discovers a strange new world with the help of a hobgoblin. (Paramount)


I watched the film with someone who was an avid adult fan of the books and who had been looking forward to the film. She concluded with a sigh of resignation that of course they had changed a lot and had essentially condensed all the books into one, yet she still left the theater pleased with what she had seen on screen.

Having nothing to compare the film to or any expectations based on reading the books, I felt pleasantly surprised by the film version of The Spiderwick Chronicles. Director Waters and his writers work to create a real world before introducing us to the fantasy one. After a title sequence alludes to the mysteries of Arthur Spiderwick's lab, the film moves to the present day to find Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) taking her three kids to an old dilapidated mansion once owned by her great-great uncle Arthur (David Strathairn). Her oldest child, Mallory (Sarah Bolger) understands that her parents are going through a difficult separation, but the twin boys Simon and Jared (both played by Freddie Highmore) are less in tune with what's going on. Simon, who says he's a "pacifist" and doesn't "do conflict," is content to go with the flow and not question much of anything. But Jared is angry and blames his mother for everything from their dad leaving to being stuck in this old house.

In the press materials, Waters said that he always loved fantasy films but what attracted him to The Spiderwick Chronicles was "I saw the opportunity to do something that hadn't been done before - a movie that dealt with adventure, fantasy and incredibly interesting creatures, but wasn't set in a far-off land with British wizards or Gothic orphans, or just some kind of strange, unrecognizable lead actors."

That's also what made the recent The Waterhorse appealing as well. Waters does ground his film in the real world, and more importantly he creates a real sense of the family dynamics before Jared opens the door to the world of goblins and woodland creatures. Jared's journey leads him to appreciate his family and to discover qualities in himself that he did not know he had. The relationships between the children are also credible. Mallory takes on a maternal role but still fights with her brothers, and the sibling rivalry between Simon and Jared plays out believably. It's also helpful that Bolger and Highmore are good actors and avoid Hollywood cuteness.


David Strathairn plays Arthur Spiderwick to Freddie Highmore's Jared. (Paramount)

Once Jared reads Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide , he can suddenly see a house "brownie" (Martin Short) who tries to warn him about all the dangers lurking just outside the safety of the old house. He also encounters a hobgoblin (Seth Rogen), who, like the hobbits, seems quite preoccupied with food. But there are also evil creatures controlled by a cruel ogre (Nick Nolte putting his gravelly voice to good effect), and they are determined to get the Field Guide at any cost - even if it means killing the entire Grace family. Jared's attempt to get others to believe him prove amusing and at times scary. Jared has been given the means to see the creatures but his sister and brother don't know what's attacking them, and can't see any of the creatures surrounding the house. It's up to Jared to find a way to protect the book and his family.

One of the creatures inThe Spiderwick Chronicles (Paramount)

A key to the success of the film is making us believe in the fantasy world. That's where Phil Tippett and ILM come in handy. Tippett has a knack for making creatures with genuine personality (check out his dragon in Dragonslayer ), and ILM is skilled at blending effects seamlessly into films. Their combined efforts make us believe in the fantasy world of The Spiderwick Chronicles . This isn't as detailed a fantasy world as The Lord of the Rings but there's enough here to delight and entertain, The voices for the creatures, however, do strive for too much comedy, like when Billy Crystal joked it up for the Japanese anime Howl's Moving Castle . In The Spiderwick Chronicles , Martin Short and Seth Rogen try a little too hard at times to get laughs, but for the most part they're enjoyable. The ogre doesn't play as big a role as I thought he might; he's there on the periphery providing a threat but he really only makes a cameo appearance for the big climax.

Nick Nolte's ogre doesn't play well with others. (Paramount)

The Spiderwick Chronicles (rated PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements) is an entertaining and well-crafted children's fantasy. This film works because the people involved seem most concerned with telling a good story rather than delivering a commercial product that could fuel a franchise.

A warning to parents, however, younger children might be scared by some of the scenes, especially the ones where the children are attacked by creatures that they cannot see. This I think is far scarier than any of the creatures themselves, or even than some realistic violence they may see on TV. Unseen creatures biting you and tearing at your skin goes to a very primal fear young children have about scary things being out there and adults not believing that it could be true. So if you take little ones be prepared to leave the light on at night or have them camp out in your bed for a night or two.

Companion viewing: The Lord of the Rings, The Warriors of Virtue, The Water Horse