Written by El Fangorio
Thanks to the phenomenal success of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, these days pretty much any children’s book can be made into a film franchise so long as it contains a wizard, a dragon, or an ogre. The Spiderwick Chronicles series of books, written by Holly Black and illustrated by Tony Diterlizzi, tells the adventures of the three Grace siblings, twins Jared and Simon, and their older sister Mallory, after they move into the mysterious Spiderwick Mansion and discover a world of faeries, goblins, and other magical beasties. Condensing the five novels into one story, the film does a great job of keeping it simple enough for those unfamiliar with the series without disappointing the fans. Most importantly, it’s one of those rare instances where a genre film keeps its fantasy rooted in reality so that the viewer can understand what’s going on without having to be enrolled in wizard school. The film is further aided by the work of its talented young cast, some stellar voice acting, and a bevy of impressive creature effects.
Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) has dedicated his life to studying the secret world around us, something he discovered by accident. Invisible to the naked eye, this realm is populated by creatures that live amongst us either as friend or foe, preserving peace or creating chaos. All of his discoveries are kept in a large tome called Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. In it are highly detailed records of how each species came to be, where it lives, and what its various strengths and weaknesses are. Spiderwick soon learns the danger of recording all their secrets when the evil ogre Mulgarath learns of the book and seeks it as a means to conquer and destroy. Arthur decides to protect himself and the book by hiding it and placing a magic protective barrier around the house. Not knowing of the book and the dangerous world around her, his six year-old daughter Lucinda is attacked by one of the invisible creatures hoping to use her to find the book. Arthur is able to save the child but not before a legion of fairies step in to aid him by whisking him away safely to their world, leaving Lucinda fatherless and with one hell of a story for the police.
Cut to present day as Helen Grace (Mary Louise-Parker), along with her three children, twins Jared and Simon (both played by Freddy Highmore) and their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), has moved into the creepy Spiderwick Estate after Aunt Lucinda has given it to her. We learn that Lucinda (now 86) has been in a psychiatric hospital ever since her encounter with the invisible world, presumably since nobody would believe her story.
Later that night, Jared hears something moving in the walls. He breaks into the wall and discovers a hidden dumbwaiter that leads to a secret room. It’s Arthur’s study and locked away in a trunk is the field guide. There is a warning on the book from great-great uncle Arthur saying to never open it. Of course Jared ignores the warning and stays up all night reading about the unseen world around him. One of the creatures he reads about, a ‘brownie,’ sounds like the one he may have heard rustling in the walls. He learns that they are appeased by honey and after finding out what “appease” means by his smarter half Simon, Jared sets out to find the creature by sitting up all night in the secret room.
He awakens to ThimbleTack who tells him all about the book and it’s importance. He explains that magical creatures are invisible but can reveal themselves at will. He also tells him of the protective barrier around the house and gives him a stone with a hole in it that allows one to see these fantastic creatures. He warns him though that since he opened the book, that there will be others coming to find it. Per usual, nobody believes Jared about the book he found. It isn’t until Simon is snatched away by Mulgrath’s goblins that Jared is able to convince his sister that there is an unseen battle going on that needs their help.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is a good example of what you get when the right creative team takes on the right material. Because the market is so saturated with fantasy films for children, lesser-known works such as this are going to need a little extra help in front of and behind the cameras in order to compete with the more popular films being made. It’s not that Spiderwick isn’t a solid story but let’s face it, it isn’t the first time we’ve seen children battling ogres. In fact, it isn’t even the first time we’ve seen the lead actor battling foul creatures invisible to the naked eye.
Easily the hardest-working kid in showbiz right now, Freddy Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, The Golden Compass) has been through this before and you’d be forgiven for skipping this film thinking you’ve already seen it as it’s almost the same premise as his earlier Arthur and the Invisibles. But whereas that film was animated, Spiderwick is a live-action film and for my money, a far superior one. There is a more palpable sense of awe and wonder when watching real humans react to their fictional surroundings than watching their animated counterparts doing the same. It’s also worth noting that Highmore plays dual roles in this film, playing both of the twins, and does an excellent job when you consider the only physical difference between the two is a haircut.
Rounding out the rest of the family is actress Sarah Bolger who plays Mallory Grace. As with British actor Highmore, this actress also has a thick foreign accent (Irish in her case) off camera though you would never know it to watch her here. She has some nice dialogue to work with here (due to John Sayles’ tweaking of the screenplay) being the sarcastic teenage sister, and her delivery is quite good. Unfortunately, Helen Grace could have been played by anybody so Louise-Parker's acting chops are hardly given a workout here but this is fine since we rarely see her character in the film anyways. In fact, most of the action takes place while she’s sleeping or at work. The rest of the Spiderwick clan amount to little more than cameos with Joan Plowright as Aunt Lucinda and ‘80s teen-film staple Andrew McCarthy as the recently split Mr. Grace.
The rest of the film is populated with CGI characters with perfectly cast actors providing their voices. Martin Short plays ThimbleTack, the gentle Brownie that turns into a hot-tempered ‘Boggart’ when he doesn’t get his honey, and his penchant for playing overtly stressed-out characters is no different here. Also playing one of the good guys is Seth Rogan as Hogsqueal the Hobgoblin. Typical of anything he does, Hogsqueal is hilarious as the pig/bat/monkey fusion with serious attention deficit disorders. The bad guys are just as impressive with Nick Nolte playing the evil Mulgrath and Ron Pearlman in an uncredited role, voicing the henchman Redcap, leader of the goblins.
As with most genre films of today, this one places its main title sequence at the end of the film. This is always a hindrance when you end up spending the entire time trying to figure out “who’s playing that voice?” but in this case it’s a testament to the technical crew when you end up being impressed by what you see without knowing (ahead of time) that some huge names are responsible. In this case, we have the recently accomplished director Mark Waters (Mean Girls, Freaky Friday (2003)), cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Passion), and special creature effects by Phil Tippet (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back). These are some pretty impressive credentials and their work on Spiderwick sets it apart from the rest of the children’s films being made right now. The film is shot beautifully and the creatures look awesome, especially Mulgrath once he shows his real face (they don’t cater to the easily frightened with this guy). It also helps that Nickelodeon Movies produced this film, meaning kids can say “hell” and mass amounts of phlegmy substances will be flown.
All of this makes for a great Blu-Ray viewing experience as pretty much anything that relies on CGI effects is going to be infinitely better when viewed in high definition. Needless to say, Spiderwick’s Blu-ray is a definite improvement over its SD release. Deschanel’s striking photography compliments the digital effects on display and both are rendered beautifully in HD. He doesn’t fill the screen with overtly saturated colors instead relying on a natural palette, making it harder to toss it all off as being “done by a computer”. Black levels are pitch perfect (Mulgrath’s crow comes to mind) and there isn’t a single grain to be found. If there is anything to complain about, it might be that it suffers the same fate as most HD transfers in that it’s got an overall darkness that is most likely the result of the studio wanting to make sure the consumer doesn’t confuse intentional film grain as film noise. This is unfortunately a practice that will continue until everyone realizes that HD doesn’t mean “without grain.”
Its audio, here in Dolby 5.1 TrueHD is a little on the soft side at times. I would assume this is because it’s a children’s film though I hardly doubt they kept that in mind when creating Mulgrath so why can’t his scenes be equally as powerful in this department? The rest of the film sounds fine and the score by James Horner is nicely enhanced, though it does sound an awful lot like his Something Wicked This Way Comes (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing).
The Spiderwick Chronicles comes with a plethora of supplemental features though I will never understand the process behind splitting up over an hours worth of footage over seven parts, especially now that everyone knows the sham. You can’t list a making-of feature with a running time of 18 minutes and expect people to be impressed. Instead, break it up into three six-minute featurettes and you give the impression of there being more than there really is. But here we have at least an hour’s worth of extras and, trust me, a 75-minute documentary on the making of Spiderwick would have been more than enough justification to go the old route. It is worth noting that all of the special features are presented here in HD.
First off is “Spiderwick: It’s All True!” which is little more than a six-minute intro by the director. As with the rest of the initial supplements, the information given is as if this magic really exists. Mark Waters tells us that he’s a firm believer in all of this and that you should be too. He asks us to protect ourselves with the tools from the film so that we can watch the rest of the features without worrying about Mulgrath and Co. coming to get us. Kind of cute (a word I rarely use).
Next is the seven-minute “It’s a Spiderwick World” which further blurs the line between fantasy and reality with author and illustrator of The Spiderwick Chronicles informing us of the origin of the series. Apparently they received a letter from the Grace children themselves, though the kids’ real names have been changed here (to protect them from ogres and inevitable asylums). The letter described the story of discovering the Field Guide and their venture into the unseen world around them. Black decided to put this all in story form, while her partner Diterlizzi came up with the impressive illustrations that make up the Field Guide used in the series of books. To be honest, this was a little too much for me to chew on and made me want to back away slowly from the couple. Still, kids are sure to eat this up and I sort of wish I wasn’t so old and cynical to enjoy the ruse.
“Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide” is a cool way to see the pages of the book, their beautiful illustrations, and the helpful info used to describe each species. It’s obviously inspired by the popular Gnomes book from the ‘70s. Like the film itself, it’s kept simple and a good way to brush up on the creatures and the various protections used to ward them off. Exclusive to the HD release is a “Virtual Field Guide” option that allows you to access the book during key scenes of the film. For example, when Hogsqueal enters the scene for the first time, a little icon appears where if you access it with the remote, you will be taken to his section within the book.
The remaining three featurettes are production-based with nobody claiming that’s it’s all true. These are lengthier pieces ranging from 15 to 20 minutes in length. You get some nice on-set interviews with the cast in “Spiderwick: Meet the Clan”. Again, it’s hard to believe that these American characters are played by heavy-accented foreigners but then again who hasn’t walked around on St Patty’s Day pretending to be a Leprechaun? I imagine it’s just the reverse for them. It also includes some fun footage of Rogan working on the voice of Hogsqueal. “The Making of Spiderwick” is just that as it details everything from production design to props to stuntwork. Interviews with key players behind the cameras are here. Finally, “The Magic of Spiderwick” focuses on the key players in post-production including Phil Tippet and his company of animators. There is also some nice footage of the different forms that Mulgrath took before deciding to go ‘the scary route’. Also included are three deleted scenes (character scenes, no extra monsters) and the film’s theatrical teaser and trailer.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is an easy recommendation, both as a film and as a Blu-ray. With so many densely storied fantasy films on the market, it’s easy to forget to how successful they can be when kept simple. Now that I’ve seen it, I totally regret not catching it in the theater, let alone in Imax. Again, it’s not a coincidence that practically everyone involved, from in front of the camera to behind, is some of the best working today. It’s a perfect mix of talent from the past (Deschanel, Tippet, Short) and present (Walker, Highmore, Rogan) coming together to make a pretty perfect film. My only gripe is that being a conglomerate of all of the books in the series, this inevitably means that this Spiderwick film will be the only Spiderwick film to come. Alas, I would have loved to see more.