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Monday, February 18, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles

This past weekend I went with two other adults to see the children’s fantasy The Spiderwick Chronicles. My companions are both special effects fans, so they came just to see the CGI. None of us had ever read the books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi on which the movie was based, which meant that we were probably the only ones there who were clueless as to what we should expect. The gi-normous theater at the Essex Cinemas was packed to the rafters with kids of all ages, from the tiniest tots to the tallest of teens. Apparently The Spiderwick Chronicles has quite the little cult following, with emphasis on the “little.” It’s sort of a pre-pubescent Rocky Horror Picture Show but without all the props ~ yet. I could easily see this turn into a great midnight movie for adults, but there would be probably be lots of pharmaceuticals ingested by those attending before the curtain comes up.

Maybe you’ll understand if I explain a bit about
The Spiderwick Chronicles. The story follows the Grace family, soon-to-be-divorced Helen (Mary-Louise Parker; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and her three children, daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger; Stormbreaker), and twin sons Jared and Simon (both Freddie Highmore; August Rush). They’ve left their life in New York City for a new start on an old family estate that belonged to Helen’s great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn; The Bourne Ultimatum).

The kids are none too keen on moving to this dilapidated old house in the middle of nowhere, but Helen does her best to explain that it is all they can afford under the circumstances and she encourages the three of them to explore and make the place their own. What she doesn’t know is that the house already belongs to someone else. That someone else is a house Brownie named Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short; The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause).

In short time Jared discovers Thimbletack and learns that his longstanding job has been to protect a mysterious book,
The Spiderwick Chronicles, which was written by Arthur Spiderwick and hidden in the house eighty years ago, shortly before his disappearance. I’m sure you can guess this book ain’t no simple book of recipes. No, it’s a compendium of information Arthur gathered by studying all sorts of strange otherworldly creatures that live in the forest around the big house. Worst of the lot are the vicious goblins, led by the most evil bastard this side of Dick Cheney, a shape shifting rogue called Mulgarath (Nick Nolte; The Mysteries of Pittsburgh).

Somehow Spiderwick learned how to concoct a potion to create an invisible wall of protection around the house to protect the book from the goblins, so it has been up to Thimbletack to keep it inside and safe since, among other things, the book includes the information necessary to destroy all life on Earth, one species at a time. That, of course, has been easy in the decades that the house has been vacant, but now that Jared has discovered Arthur’s secret workshop and the book, all chances of that are out the window (as is the book).

The first thing that immediately got me chuckling in
this story is how a tough NYC mother would just so easily dismiss her son’s stories of “creatures” living in their house. I’m sorry, but the first thing I’d be doing is checking out my 'tween kid’s pupils and rummaging through his underpants drawer. Crack is whack, and no NYC mom is going to just go “uh-huh” and be THAT self-involved not to jump on her child for fear of him turning into a hard-core druggie. Even someone as totally uncool as horsey-faced Sarah Jessica Parker and her husband Ferris Bueller Broderick would be slick enough to ask where they could score some of whatever Jared was on. Er, I mean, they’d want to make sure Jared “Just said No!” to drugs.

Anyway, Helen blames Jared’s “delusions” on red squirrels in the walls. Yeah, well it could be red squirrels, but if it was your kid, wouldn’t it worry you enough to check it out. Either look in the attic or take the boy to a doctor. At one time I worked in a facility for people suffering from severe mental illnesses, and when people didn’t take their medications they often saw goblins and faeries and all kinds of crap in the yard, which was actually anything from a bird to a dandelion to a grasshopper. I’m not putting down
The Spiderwick Chronicles, you understand, I’m just saying that it is not the kind of movie like, say, just about any Harry Potter adventure, that will draw in an adult and keep him or her from thinking about the real world the way it might hope to do.

Of course Jared does exactly what Thimbletack warns him not to do, and he steals the book and takes it beyond the safe zone around the house, setting off an attack by the goblins which literally drags Simon and Mallory into the war and puts all three at risk. Oh, and he also puts all of humanity at risk as well since he manages to lose that very important part of the loose-leaf book to the evil Mulgarath. Naturally.

There wouldn’t be much dramatic tension without all Hell breaking loose and it does. It’s scary stuff, enough for my friends and me to jump at some of those “sneak attack” moments, which I can’t really reveal here in case you go see the film yourself. It does a great job with the special effects and the battle royal, which leaves the Spiderwick Mansion in collapse.

Speaking of special effects, the greatest effects in the picture are the performances given by Freddie Highmore as twins Jared and Simon Grace. Both characters are remarkably different from one another, and they manage to even look somewhat different. Granted, they wear their hair in different styles, but it is more than that. They affect unique mannerisms and their temperaments appear quite separate from the other. Highmore’s ability to put that all on the screen would be tough enough if he was playing the roles in scenes with other characters, but in The Spiderwick Chronicles the majority of his acting is opposite himself in the same scenes. Hence, he was forced to shoot each scene twice, from different angles, remembering where and when his “other” twin was standing, what his gestures were, and when his dialogue began and ended so he could act and react to his non-existent other self who would be inserted into the scene via computer later. Highmore has already proven himself a capable actor in other films (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Finding Neverland), but this must surely have been a tough assignment for the 16 year old.

My biggest gripe with movies like The Spiderwick Chronicles is simple. It is the same for basically any movie where the impossible happens, from Friday the 13th to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to The Spiderwick Chronicles, I want to know what happens after “happily ever after.” In this case, how does the poor as dirt divorcée pay for all the repairs on the house that are going to be needed when you know since they’ve only been there a couple of days there’s only a slim chance she’s had it insured? Will the rest of the family quit treating Jared like an outcast now and believe him when he says something? And will the kids ever see their father again or do they even care anymore? I always leave with more questions than answers.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a fast-paced monster mash, but it is probably best for kids old enough to read the books on their own by flashlight in the dark alone because there is some violence and the children are put at risk throughout. Any kids susceptible to nightmares will have new fodder to stock their night terrors for at least a year but other than that, it’s great fun. And for adults, it offers all sorts of mind-altering possibilities.

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