February 14, 2008

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Frodo and Gollum together again

Grade: C
Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, and David Strathairn
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

It is a tricky enterprise to apply logic to a kid’s fantasy film. But, The Spiderwick Chronicles, the latest progeny of the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia child fantasy templates, invites such scrutiny. Unlike its forerunners, which are typically situated in some extra-dimensional universe, Spiderwick sets its action squarely within the grounds of a rundown New England estate. Indeed, during one scene, a troll chases the protags through a maze of underground tunnels and up a manhole in the middle of town, where the creature is promptly flattened by a passing truck.

So, when brothers Jared and Simon Grace (Freddie Highmore, pulling double duty) accompany their sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and mother Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) in moving into the Spiderwick Estate, former home of great-great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) before he mysteriously disappeared 80 years ago, the questions start piling up faster than the supernatural oddities. Jared stumbles across Uncle Spiderwick’s homemade “Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You” locked away in the bowels of the old house, affixed with a handwritten card warning against reading or even opening the book. Naturally, Jared does both, awakening a horde of goblins and a powerful ogre named Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte) bent on nabbing the book and unlocking its secrets.

Pardon the interruption, but exactly what was Mulgarath and the goblins—which resemble the animated mucus creatures in those Mucinex commercials—doing for the past three-quarters century besides waiting for some dopey kid to come along and serve up a book to them? A magic spell shields the Spiderwick house itself from invasion, but the goblins roam free outside it, capable of pillaging, invisibility and, in Mulgarath’s case, shape-shifting. Why do they need this book, and why can they not ferret out its secrets the same way Arthur Spiderwick did? Come to think of it, what exactly is in the book, how did Spiderwick discover the information and why did he commit it to writing knowing it could only be used for evil? And, is that really Seth Rogen and Martin Short doing voice work?

Most of these questions are addressed in greater detail in Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black’s five-novel series, first published in 2003. But, much gets lost in their translation to a screenplay doctored by eight different writers (though only three are credited). One of them, indie filmmaker John Sayles, came up with the idea of compressing the entire series into this 97-minute cinematic CliffsNotes. The result is slipshod and curiously anti-climactic—something to do with tomato sauce, oatmeal and a bird-eating hobgoblin—while also adrift in narrative perplexities and fixated on off-putting subtexts like Jared’s anger management problems and the estrangement between his mother and father.

Like Highmore’s last film, the similarly abstruse The Golden Compass, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a kid’s flick that lacks the grownup virtues – and logic – that make other fantasy series so durable.

Neil Morris

No comments: