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The Spiderwick Chronicles   B

Paramount Pictures / Nickelodeon Movies

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Mark Waters
Writers: Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, John Sayles (based on the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black)
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, Sarah Bolger, Andrew McCarthy, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn, Seth Rogan, Martin Short.

Review by Rob Vaux

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
--Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies
In some ways, The Spiderwick Chronicles is just another fantasy fast-tracker trying to cash in on that sweet Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings lucre. The price we pay for those earlier movies includes the inevitable bad imitations which followed: any two-bit bestseller with the faintest whiff of a loyal following has been dragged up on screen to remind us just how hard it is to present this kind of material properly. With a disturbingly short attention span and elements ratcheted from a thousand subpar children's movies before it, The Spiderwick Chronicles threatens to add more compost to an extremely depressing pile.

That is, until you realize how much attention director Mark Waters has paid to the details of his setting. It's a fairy world, hidden in the Vermont woods and visible to no one save those special few who know how to look right. But rather than invent it out of whole cloth the way Tolkien and Rowling did so impressively (and scores of their lessers have attempted to disastrous effect), Spiderwick sticks to the traditional tales of centuries past. Well-known customs borne of magic and superstition -- throw salt behind your shoulder or you'll be plagued with bad luck, leave honey for the brownies or they'll put tacks in your shoe -- come bubbling to life here, ringing true in every moment because their roots lie in the centuries-deep foundations of European folklore.

By setting his compass on those marks, Waters deftly rescues The Spiderwick Chronicles from shrieking ADD mediocrity. The film posits a book (there's always a book), locked in a lonely New England mansion and guarded by creatures not of this earth. Its author, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), wrote down all the tricks and secrets of the beings he witnessed some 80 years ago. When some of them got wind of it, they spirited him away, never to be seen again. But his book remains and the knowledge it holds is of especial interest to the nastier woodland denizens. If they get their hands on it, they could make things pretty miserable for the rest of us, and while they can't enter the house (a magic circle of toadstools keeps them out), they have other resources at their disposal to call upon.

Enter the Grace family, Spiderwick's descendents and survivors of a standard-issue Movie Divorce. Mom (Mary-Louis Parker) packs them out here to start a new life, which seems okay by big sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and bookish Simon (Freddie Highmore). But Simon's rebellious twin brother Jared (also Highmore) has little interest in living in the boondocks without his dad... that is, until he finds the book and various beasties both good and ill start giving them all an unsettling amount of attention.

The setup remains very simple, and while the divorce notion hits a few too many obvious notes, it's saved by a thoughtful pace and Parker's solid performance (credit her for refusing to mark time in a thankless mom role). The Spiderwick Chronicles maintains a bouncy sense of energy as the creatures scurry forth from the woods, balancing excessive visual effects with enough wit and imagination to sell us on the proceedings. The action has a sharp, sparkling quality but still retains a feeling of menace, while the family's interactions, though largely stock, hold enough plausibility to convey their growing peril. The script is clever enough to engage adults but straightforward enough for kids to follow, and while the effects pile up, they never overwhelm the film the way they do so many others.

Why does it all work? In briefest terms, because we already know most of the details of this universe. Waters doesn't have to explain the inner workings of a grandiose kingdom or the physiology of a new monster and what particular magic might kill it. That elaborate bombast -- the Byzantine details which help sell, say, Middle-earth or the Star Wars universe -- simply isn't needed here, replaced by the inarguable logic of bedtime stories that everyone knows by heart. Such stories require a deceptively tough mixture of childlike wonder and genuine darkness; the first is much easier to invoke than the second, which is arguably more important. The creatures involved in these tales are fundamentally alien, possessing powers that we can do nothing against. Even the benevolent ones can more or less do as they please to us: put us to sleep for a thousand years or carry us off to another world whether we want to go or not. Their beauty and enchantment contrast with the threat they represent -- a threat that the likes of Bottom and Rip Van Winkle learned to their detriment, and which Spiderwick authors Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black clearly understood when they wrote it all down. The film succeeds in part because it finds that tricky balance: as magical and entrancing as its faeries can be, they remain dangerous and frightening creatures, not to be trifled with.

With that in place, The Spiderwick Chronicles frees itself from the ponderous exposition that sunk so many of its fellows. We grasp everything we need to know within a few moments, allowing the film get on with things and not worry about whether we're keeping up. As Jared and his siblings try to keep the book safe from various things that go bump in the night, Waters' carefully dictated tone pulls every aspect of the film together, filling it with strength and staving off the sickly preciousness that may have consumed it in less capable hands. The mood never wavers, allowing The Spiderwick Chronicles to develop into an exciting and largely watertight adventure. The devil is in the details, as they say; these succeed both because we know them so well and because the filmmakers trust us to appreciate them on our own.

Review published 02.17.2008.

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