United States, 2008
Directed By: Mark Waters
Written By: Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum and John Sayles
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Nick Nolte, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Seth Rogan
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rated PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements
This review was originally posted February 16th, 2008.
Nickelodeon Movies, since its inception, has pulled off a handful of fairly decent literary adaptations. Harriet the Spy managed to be watchable despite the presence of Rosie O’Donnell; A Series of Unfortunate Events rode to success on brilliant visual direction and excellent usage of Jim Carrey’s underrated acting chops; Charlotte’s Web was reportedly pretty good as well. Unfortunately, they were due for a miss. The Spiderwick Chronicles is not only a bore to sit through, it’s also, I’m sorry to say, probably not the sort of thing you want to take your kids to see (or at least your youngest ones).
At the start, Spiderwick appears to be a harmless rip-off of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret Garden. Three kids—Mallory Grace (Sarah Bolger) and her twin brothers Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore) move away from New York City and into a rural New England house with their recently divorced mother Helen (Mary-Louise Parker). The house was once owned by their grandfather, who mysteriously disappeared 80 years back. Jared stumbles upon a book said grandfather put together, which chronicles his discoveries of various magical flora and fauna, such as fairies, boggarts and goblins. This, unfortunately, alerts the obligatory Dark Powers to the book’s location, and the mysterious house is quickly sieged by the forces of head goblin Mulgurath (Nick Nolte), who will stop at nothing to get the book, and use its knowledge to destroy all living things. Or something.
At this point, the film has pretty much degenerated into a rip-off of Gremlins and Night of the Living Dead, as the family of four holes themselves up inside the house and tries to fight off the various beasties that come trying to break in. Far be it from me to tell you what to take your kids to, but let it be known that at this point it gets very scary and very violent. Goblins are mutilated, burned with chemicals, and blown up. There’s even a scene of attempted (human) patricide. Sitting in a theater full of kids being treated to this sort of thing was, quite frankly, a little bit disturbing—and it was only a small comfort that the special effects were very, very bad.
What’s particularly offensive about Spiderwick, though, is that it simply hasn’t earned this level of carnage. The writers seem content here to pile on the trite fantasy clichés—all-powerful sources of evil, indestructible talismans of power, adults not believing their children’s stories, etc.—without ever bothering to create the sense of wonder that good fantasy does. As soon as the children are introduced to this magical world, they have to fight to save it, and never mind if it’s worth saving in the first place. What we’re really talking about here is Mio in the Land of Faraway (look it up) with a slightly bigger budget.
Further killing off the possibility that you’ll want to see this film is the callous use of family-movie clichés that shouldn’t be clichés in the first place. Listen up, Hollywood: divorce is a terrible, terrible thing that ruins countless children’s lives every year. It should never be used as a mere plot point. And if you can’t think of a better way to force coming of age, you need to find a new field of work. End of story.
I could go on here. Thoroughly average camerawork, overlabored editing, terrible acting (am I the only one who’s noticed what a lousy actor Freddie Highmore is?—and there’s two of him in this film!), etc. Ultimately, though, the bottom line is that Spiderwick is a waste of your kids’ time when they could be out in the backyard, imagining something much better.