Thursday, February 14, 2008

"The Spiderwick Chronicles" -- * * *

There are a few reasons why "The Spiderwick Chronicles" succeeds where "The Golden Compass" failed. For one thing, there's a sense of joy and wonder on display here, not just clinical attention to technical precision/mastery. For another, without ever condescending, it makes the goings-on easy enough to follow ("Compass" often left me staring at the screen with a bewildered look on my face). Lastly, and most importantly, "Spiderwick" is a consistently fun and entertaining fantasy film that never makes you scratch your head and fall asleep. More often than not, kids-skewing movies provide just the bare minimum of entertainment or creativity knowing that kids will watch anything (e.g.: "Alvin and the Chipmunks"), but the filmmakers here seem actually interested in delivering a fun ride, not just bringing in cash. The movie never feels like it was made on an assembly line (even if it was, it doesn't feel that way), and provides an enjoyable 90-minutes even to those well above the target-demo age group.
Twins Jared and Simon Grace (both Freddie Highmore), along with mom (Mary-Louise Parker) and sister Mallory ("In America's" Sarah Bolger), are none-too-happy about being forced to move into the rural mansion that used to belong to their great-uncle Spiderwick (David Straithairn, seen mostly through sepia-toned flashbacks). The mov e is due to their parents' divorce, and moody Jared spends most of his time wandering around the house and rebelling against Mom. While snooping around the attic, the boy discovers The Spiderwick Chronicles, a very large book written by said uncle, giving all sorts of information about various creepy creatures. The book, written 80 years earlier, before Uncle Spiderwick disappeared, turns out to be a guidebook of all the creatures surrounding the mansion, who can only be seen by other creatures and those humans who the creatures allow to see them.

Ignoring the warning not to read the book, Jared soon encounters said goblins, including Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) and Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen). He is thus warned that master Mulgrath (Nick Nolte) has longed to get his hands on the book, and will stop at nothing to get ahold of it. While Mulgrath doesn't obtain the entire book, he soon gets a few pages of it, and this is enough to gain him access to the human world (I think). As a result, Jared, Simon and Mallory must track down Spiderwick's daughter, Lucinda (Joan Plowright), now in her mid-eighties, to try to find Spiderwick himself and find out how to keep the book protected. If I don't sound too sure of the details of the plot, that's because I'm not; thankfully, the fun lies in the adventure not the story.

Equipped with a PG rating, "Spiderwick" is often scarier than you might expect, with the creatures and goblins actually posing a legitimate threat (and often causing painful wounds). While I would probably suggest leaving those under the age of, let's say, eight at home, most kids should be fine with this, and appreciate that they're getting a movie that's actually exciting and not treating them like pussies. Aside from the respect it gives its young audience, the movie also avoids typical kids-movie shtick; there's nary a fart joke to be found, nor do I recall any lame pratfalls. Perhaps the protagonists being pre-teens and not wee tykes had something to do with the handling of the material, but either way, I enjoyed the proceedings considerably more than the much-beloved "Chronicles of Narnia" and the aforementioned "Compass."

Highmore's twin's accent/manner of speaking is distracting at first, but I got used to it and, my irritants be damned, the kid shows evidence here why he seems to get cast in every "family" film to come out of the gate. However, it's disappointing that Parker gives an uncharacteristically half-assed performance; she mostly just looks like she can't wait to get back to the "Weeds" set. Nonetheless, Straithairn is reliably solid, and Nolte seems to having fun in his one sequence in human form. It's a genuine delight to see Plowright back on the big screen, and it's almost as much of as delight to see *SPOILER!* Andrew McCarthy show up for a single scene to be stabbed repeatedly by Highmore. This really isn't a film that's about the acting, but for a film that didn't really need "name" actors to be sold to its young audience, the ensemble is considerably impressive.
Resembling what "Bridge to Teribithia" might have been like if it focused more on the fantasy world, and not the traumas of premature death, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is certainly the best offering around right now for a family outing at the movies. But, through it all, what's most surprising is the level to which it functions as non-pandering entertainment and a genuinely fun adventure tale for any age group. In the gap between "Harry Potter" films, a lot of fantasy films get thrust at us attempting to fill the void; "Spiderwick" is the rare one that actually succeeds and plays on the same level with (presumably) half the budget.


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