The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008) dir. Mark Waters
Starring: David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary Louise Parker, Seth Rogen (voice), Martin Short (voice) and Andrew McCarthy
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
My first helping of this family-oriented fantasy was on the big screen and my recollections of that experience are relatively positive. However, keep in mind that it was the EXPERIENCE of seeing it, NOT the movie itself that left me with a positive feeling. In fact, I had pretty much filed the movie under forgettable save for the vaguely lingering feeling that Nick Nolte was a great villain and that David Strathairn was (almost as always) pleasing, but so much so that one wanted him to be the main character instead of the annoying dysfunctional family we’re forced to spend the rest of the movie with.
The other reason I recall it being a good experience was that I saw it with my kid and she seemed to have a reasonably good time watching it. But that’s about it. That’s about all I remembered until I watched it again on DVD, which confirmed why the initial experience on the big screen was ultimately so forgettable.
Basically, The Spiderwick Chronicles is more done-to-death family fantasy with nothing especially new or exciting added to the mix (save for the occasionally welcome tone of nastiness on the part of Nick Nolte and his unholy cohorts).
The narrative is way too familiar. A single Mom with money problems moves her kids (a pair of male twins and their sister) into a creepy old mansion bequeathed to them. The kids discover weirdness in the house and surrounding neighborhood – a whole other world of creepy creatures (most evil, some helpful). The kids find their long dead grandfather’s (Strathairn) creation - a magical field book that had the power to open doors between our world and the world of monsters. The main monster, played with scenery-chewing delight by Nolte, wants to possess the book to have ultimate power over pretty much everyone and everything on both sides of the dividing line. One of the boys leads the way in battling the monsters and eventually grows up by reuniting with Grandad in the spirit world and bringing his dysfunctional family together.
Isn’t that nice?
Apparently, the movie is based on a series of popular family books. Big surprise. Isn’t everything these days?
In any event, I have never bothered to read any of these contemporary masterworks since I’m more inclined to expose my kid to the classics rather than these mass-marketed franchise empires masquerading as literature. Therefore, I am unable to compare the movie with the books, but I can only assume they’re of the same ilk. (And for those who do not mind exposing their children to such books, I’m willing to concede that they’re probably good for what they are – maybe even first rate. But again, for what they are.)
Another thing that’s getting tiresome in these fantasy movies is seeing families that are torn apart by divorce. This is getting old fast. Even if this represents the legacy of the baby boomer hippies and resembles most “families” (if you can call them that) these days, it would be nice to see a return to the true family values of the classics (both in film and literature). If popular culture – especially movies like this one could present such values at the forefront, then maybe, just maybe they’d provide more acceptable propaganda to inspire values other than selfishness and dysfunction.
All in all, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a vaguely competent and certainly watchable family fantasy, but it’s also nothing really special. The picture is well acted and sports some terrific special effects. If your children have been reared in some nut-job Waldorf-styled school, the movie might prove to be a tad scary or intense for the really wee ones. That said - my seven-year-old didn’t find it scary. That said, she’s already seen Hellboy, Sin City, all the classic Universal horror movies, all the Ray Harryhausen fantasy adventures, all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies and Gremlins, to name but a few – so The Spiderwick Chronicles was pretty much a walk in the park for her.
Once again, all the technical credits on this picture (in addition to the sfx) are first rate – everything from Caleb Deschanel’s rich cinematography, Michael Kahn’s razzle-dazzle cutting and James Horner’s suitably sweeping score. The screenplay, such as it is, appears to bear a co-writing credit from John Sayles which is nice knowing since it means he was probably able to raise an entire independent feature budget from his writer fee in order to make a movie he actually cared about.
One of the main reasons the picture is so forgettable might also have more to do with the ho-hum by-the-numbers direction provided by the thoroughly unexciting Mark Waters. Someone with more flair or panache might have nudged this picture a little further into something more memorable. At least it would have had style – something resembling a personal voice rather than feeling like it was cobbled together by studio marketing analysts.
The recently released DVD is presented in a 2-Disc Field Guide Edition which means that the cover bears a fake wax seal holding the cover closed with Velcro and that the two discs are crammed with the usual assortment of EPK-styled extra features.
There are a lot worse family fantasy adventures than The Spiderwick Chronicles to foist upon your kids, but with the wealth of classic material available out there, one wonders why this picture would come close to anything resembling a first-choice.
"Spiderwick Chronicles" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment