Jared and Simon Grace (Freddie Highmore, “Finding Neverland”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), twin brothers and their older sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), move into the dilapidated Spiderwick mansion with their divorced mother Helen (Mary Louise Parker). The family home is available to them because Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright), the 86 year-old daughter of Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), has finally gone to the sanatorium to live out the remainder of her life. Almost immediately, Jared, the more rebellious, surly of the twins, suspects there are creatures living in the house. He soon finds Spiderwick’s secret study and a handmade book covered with a wax seal and a warning. “Do Not Open This Book”. Naturally, Jared opens the book and learns of Spiderwick’s lifelong obsession with faeries, goblins and trolls. Throughout his life, Spiderwick documented everything about these creatures, charms, cures, protective spells. As soon as he finished the book, Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte), a huge, monstrous troll, made it his quest to get the book because once he has the information in his possession, he has control over all beasts, including humans. Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a house elf, helps to protect the book and Hogsqueal (voice by Seth Rogen) helps the family in their battle against Mulgarath and his goblins. Naturally, as soon as Jared reads the book, he becomes a target and Simon and Mallory have to help him fight off the troll and his minions. Their mother, dealing with a move, a divorce and family problems, is slow to catch on, but once she does, she helps with the battle.
Based on a series of popular children’s books “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is a very well-made, exciting, fast-paced film for the whole family. It has the detail, the level of danger and the characters most filmmakers strive for when making a film they hope will join the cannon of family classics like “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and the dozens of other family classics.
Directed by Mark Waters (“Mean Girls”, “Freaky Friday”), the child actors are really good. Freddie Highmore, who was so memorable in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, plays twin brothers Jared and Simon. Twins are difficult for adult actors to play, so it seems even more remarkable that Highmore is able to create and maintain distinct personalities for both. Jared is the more rebellious one; Simon is the quieter, more accepting child. When they first arrive at the Spiderwick house, it quickly becomes apparent Jared would rather be somewhere else. He has his iPod turned up so loud so he can refrain from interacting with his brother, his sister and most especially, his mother, who he considers responsible for his parent’s divorce. In fact, he is waiting for their dad, Richard (Andrew McCarthy) to show up and take him away to live with him. Jared is also the more adventurous brother, so when he finds a mysterious book marked “Do Not Open”, he will, of course, open it. Simon’s the more reflective, quieter brother. He realizes there is a rift in the family and wants to try to help repair it. But he is also willing to follow his brother just about anywhere. So when it becomes apparent Jared’s actions in opening the Spiderwick Chronicles have placed them all in danger, Simon immediately jumps into the fray and fights alongside his brother.
Sarah Bolger plays Mallory, the older sister, and she is also good. As with older siblings, she knows and realizes things the younger kids won’t and can’t, and tries to help her mom deal with the situation. She is, initially, unable to believe Jared and Simon’s tales of creatures living in another world just outside the house, trying to break through. But when she gets a glimpse of them, she joins her brothers and brings her unique skills to the mix.
Mary-Louise Parker plays Helen, the divorced single mom trying to make a fresh start of it in the dilapidated family mansion. So often in ‘family films’ the story is centered around the kids and the adults are barely a presence in their life, receiving little, if any, attention from the filmmakers. In “Spiderwick”, Helen has a lot of issues of her own, things she is trying to deal with as she tries to raise these three kids on her own. She yells too much and doesn’t listen, two key problems she has to deal with, which will also play a significant role in later events in the story. It is nice to see a fully fleshed out adult role in a ‘family film’ like this.
David Strathairn plays Arthur Spiderwick, the man who spent his entire life chronicling everything her could about the faeries, goblins and trolls living around him. As soon as he finished the book, he sets into effect events that will affect and follow his family for eighty years. His role is brief, but no less memorable. His actions have flavored every frame of the film, and we always remember him and what he has done.
Joan Plowright, a formidable actress, plays Aunt Lucinda, a woman who has had to live with the consequences of her fathers’ actions, alone, for the last eighty years. She plays a key role in the action late in the film, giving the family the extra knowledge they need to beat Mulgarath.
The voice actors (Nick Nolte, Martin Short and Seth Rogen) are all good. Surprisingly, Short is pleasantly low-key, giving his character, a house elf who helps Arthur Spiderwick protect his book, a believable fairy tale quality.
“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is a beautiful film to watch and this can only be credited to Caleb Deschanel, the cinematographer who directed “The Black Stallion” and has worked as a cinematographer on dozens of other films. He captures the look and feel of what I have to guess is upstate New York, in the fall, in all its wonder and glory. The film mimics the palette of falling leaves, painting everything in orange, brown and dark yellow tones. It is really a beauty.
And this beauty meshes abnormally well with the CGI. Early on, the story establishes the boundaries of the human world and the magical world explored by Arthur Spiderwick. When he realizes he needs to protect his family, he creates a barrier around the house to protect them from attack. As soon as he finishes his book, he creates a need for Mulgarath to enter our world, so an alternate world is opened. Because these two worlds are so similar, little is done to make one seem different. The world inhabited by the magical creatures is a little more saturated with color, but that is about it. When these creatures pop up, they magically appear and seem to blend in to this world effortlessly. This is a key of how good the CGI is, and how well it blends with Deschanel’s cinematography. It all appears seamless. There is a level of reality to them, making them appear more realistic.
Spiderwick also creates a special monocle lens allowing its wearer to see the other creatures. This allows for some interesting and exciting battles, especially in the beginning. Mallory, who is good at fencing, uses the lens to battle off the creatures, turning to fight them only when she able to see them. Later, there is a plot point negating the need for this lens, making the battles less interesting. Until Mom needs some help, to protect her and help her kids fight off the attackers.
Director Waters has done a great job of combining believable performances, beautiful cinematography and great special effects in a rousing adventure for the whole family. Better yet, the film creates a definite feeling of menace for the characters, giving them a real goal to fight for, giving the audience something to root for. And the outcome is moving as well as believable. If you are able to suspend your disbelief a little and go with the flow of the story.