Paramount // 2008 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 24th, 2008
Their World Is Closer Than You Think
Although I've never read them, there was always something appealing about the Spiderwick books when I saw them in the bookstore. Something about their slim and unassuming size coupled with interesting covers actually intrigued me, in contrast to the vast majority of books aimed at that audience which seem self-important and/or too cartoony. Although I've never read the books, I was dragged to the theater for a screening. My initial reaction was tepid; the film wasn't bad, but it didn't wow me, although my companions (one an 8-year-old) were more impressed. Revisiting the film on DVD, I was better able to appreciate its less ambitious charms. Like a light but comforting book, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a cozy experience that might not change your life, but will provide some afternoon entertainment.
Eighty years ago, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, The Bourne Ultimatum) was a naturalist who studied the fairy folk, including sprites, brownies, and goblins. He has compiled everything he has learned into a field guide, but something happened to him. The movie starts eighty years later, as his latest generation of relatives moves into his secluded home, including Mom (Mary-Louise Parker, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and her three kids, Jared, Simon (both Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland), and Mallory (Sarah Bolger, Stormbreaker). All three of the kids have been affected by Mom's recent divorce. Mallory decides she must take on extra responsibility, Simon becomes more withdrawn and pacifist, and Jared takes it the worst of all and becomes silent and angry. When small things begin disappearing around the house, Jared gets blamed, but he soon discovers a plastered-up dumbwaiter with the missing items. Jared follows the dumbwaiter to a hidden room and discovers Arthur Spiderwick's field guide. Being the curious sort, he decides to read it. By breaking the seal on the book he awakens the ogre Mulgarath who has dark designs for the book. Now Jared must convince his siblings that they are in danger so they can protect the book.
The best thing about The Spiderwick Chronicles is the world the film creates. Although we don't get a complicated backstory or much info about what's in the field guide, there's always the sense of a complete backstory behind everything. Moreover, the world is familiar (we've heard of faeries and ogres), but there are new touches, like Thimbletack the house brownie's love for honey, that give the film's universe a nice shine. Likewise, the characters of the children are familiar but distinct. We still have the moody son, the shy son, and the older tomboy sister, but Jared's specific anger issues, Simon's love for animals, and Mallory's fencing all distinguish them from the pack of typical child protagonists.
The next best thing about The Spiderwick Chronicles is its pacing. Both times I viewed the film it seemed to zip by in a flash. The speed of the film is refreshing in this era of two hour-plus children's fantasy films. More importantly, The Spiderwick Chronicles never feels rushed or forced, in contrast to The Golden Compass, a similarly short film. The film hits the ground running, and exposition is handled economically with flashbacks. This is great for all viewers: it keeps the kids (and some adults) interested, and ensures that even if the film isn't enjoyable it's at least over quickly.
I was initially skeptical when I read that Mark Waters was going to be directing this film, since I really only knew him as the director of Mean Girls (a film I enjoyed but that didn't scream, "I could make a children's fantasy film). To my delight, Waters has done an excellent job harnessing the power of CGI to create the creatures for Spiderwick. I enjoyed both the character designs as well as their implementation. Nothing looked particularly fake or out of place, which helped me stay in the film's world.
Befitting the film's excellent visual sense, this 2-Disc Field Guide Edition DVD looks and sounds fantastic. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is as clear as a recent film can be, with no compression difficulties and a clean print. The audio is well-balanced with the dialogue and music. I was pleasantly surprised by the satisfying thumps I heard in the low end, especially when goblins attacked the magic circle around the Spiderwick house.
As for the extras, these discs seem to have the younger set in mind. We get seven featurettes, some deleted scenes, and promotional materials for the film. The featurettes are the usual talking-head affairs, with lots of input from the actors as well as the creative team behind the camera.
The Spiderwick Chronicles earns its PG rating. The 8-year-old I watched with jumped a number of times throughout the film in addition to being a little freaked out by some of the creatures themselves. So, this is probably not a film for the little ones. Also be aware that divorce plays a significant role in the film, and it's a pretty frank depiction, so sensitive children might have some trouble with that.
For some reason, the back of the case lists 101 minutes as the runtime for the feature. This is absolutely not the case, even counting credits.
Considering the abundance of fantasy films aimed at children of all ages that have come out in the last decade, it's easy to ignore the modest charms of a film like The Spiderwick Chronicles. Those who go in expecting the next Harry Potter franchise will be sorely disappointed. However, those viewers with lower expectations will likely enjoy The Spiderwick Chronicles more.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is guilty of not being the best fantasy film ever, but that's a small complaint in view of its other strengths. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* "Spiderwick: It's All True"
* "It's a Spiderwick World"
* "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide"
* "Spiderwick: Meet the Clan!"
* "Making Spiderwick!"
* "The Magic of Spiderwick!"
* "A Final Word of Advice"
* Deleted Scenes
* Nickelodeon TV Spots
* Theatrical Trailers