Oh, Harry Potter what have you wrought? From the slightly better than mediocre The Golden Compass and Chronicles of Narnia to the laughably bad Eragon and The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, there's simply too much money to be made for the fantasy-novel adaptations to end.
The latest addition to the fantasy film onslaught, Mark Waters' The Spiderwick Chronicles, has two things going for it: a laudable degree of craftsmanship and the promise of no sequels.
Condensing five short juvenile novels into a single 90-minute film, the screenwriters (including indie director John Sayles) have done a decent job of constructing a tale that will entertain the tots without insulting their parents' intelligence. Lightweight, entertaining and more than a bit haphazard, The Spiderwick Chronicles feels like the kind of fantasy story a kid might dream up in an afternoon in his back yard.
Separated from her husband, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) moves her kids from New York City to decrepit Spiderwick mansion, which she's inherited from her loony Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright). The estate hides a powerful secret, however, one that angry young Jared (Freddie Highmore) stumbles across. It seems that, 80 years earlier, scientist Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) uncovered a fantastical world that lives invisibly alongside our own and so he created a field guide that catalogues its every magical mystery. This has attracted the attention of a shape-changing ogre named Mulgrath (Nick Nolte), who hopes to use those secrets to destroy his enemies and rule the world. Compromising its protective charms, Jared, his bookish twin brother Simon (again Freddie Highmore) and teenage sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) must stop Mulgrath and his goblin hordes from gaining possession of the guide.
In other words, the story is another excuse to recycle a hodgepodge of fairytale creatures into a contemporary setting while turning the kids' magical conflict into an allegory about family discord and reconciliation.
Nevertheless, Spiderwick manages to feel like its own thing. For one, it deftly humanizes its characters (no doubt Sayles' touch) so that we actually care about the fate of these kids. Though the last third of the film is an endless barrage of running and fighting, the threats really mean something here. Waters gives Mulgrath and his minions teeth, creating scary creatures that convincingly menace the kids.
Better, the writers avoid the passive hero syndrome that plagues so many recent fantasy films. Unlike several of the Harry Potter stories, no one comes to the kid's rescue; they have to save themselves. Sure, it all culminates in a predictably CGI-heavy confrontation, but the final triumph is well-earned and surprisingly clever. In fact, it's one of the best payoffs to a throwaway joke I've ever seen.
The cast is mostly good, with Highmore doing a credible job of playing twins (though less convincingly American) and Martin Short and Seth Rogan entertainingly voicing a pair of magical sidekicks. While Strathairn is miscast as the eccentric Spiderwick, Nick Nolte turns out to be the biggest disappointment. Not because he isn't good but because there's so little of his special brand of insanity. After a brief flesh and blood appearance (looking like a demented hobo), the grizzled actor is reduced to a voice-only special effect. Truth is, no computer-generated image can match the innate scariness of Nolte in full-on freak mode. — Jeff Meyers
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.