The Spiderwick Chronicles
Film review by: Witney Seibold
In a lot of fantasy stories, the MacGuffin is an all-powerful machine or scroll or crystal or something, which the Bad Guy covets, and the Good Guy must protect. It’s often unclear as to why the item is question isn’t just destroyed outright, or why destroying it is so bloody complicated.
The MacGuffin in Mark Waters’ new children’s fantasy film “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” based on a popular series of young adult novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, is a field guide to faeries and sprites and nixies and the like, written by Arthur Spiderwick (in flashbacks, played by David Strathairn). Of course the field guide is found by a young boy (Freddie Highmore from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), of course it’s coveted by an evil ogre (Nick Nolte) and his army of goblins, of course it’s now up to the young boy to protect himself and his family (identical twin brother, also played by Highmore, fencing champ sister Sarah Bolger from “In America,” and mom Mary-Louise Parker) from the onslaught of beasties. And of course there’s a long-lost family member (Joan Plowright) who knows all about the guide that can help the boy a little, and of course there is a small group of friendly beasts (in this case a honey-loving brownie voice by Martin Short, a slobby hobgoblin voiced by Seth Rogen, and a griffin) to offer support – but not TOO much support – to our hero.
What “The Spiderwick Chronicles” does well is what director Mark Waters always does well deals realistically with the world of children. Rather than having bright-eyed child-like caricatures, Waters (The “Freaky Friday” remake, “Mean Girls”) is able to pull from his young leads believable performances that stem from real-life fears. It’s all well and good that Harry Potter’s main struggles are with dragons and evil wizards, but it’s another thing to see a trio of young kids trying to cope with their parents’ separation.
Also done well are the damp woodland special effects, which come across as a brighter and friendlier version of the muddy monsters in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” They are soggy and heavy and covered with wet leaves and fungus. They are a breed of fantasy creature found in one’s backyard rather than in one’s D&D manuals. Faeries and boggarts and hobgoblins. They seem a little closer to home than the dragons and Death Eaters and unicorns of other recent fantasy fare.
The supporting cast was superb as well. Rogen and Short chew into their voice roles very well, Plowright lends dignity to what could have been a overwrought part, and if you’re gonna get an actor to play an ogre, it’s hard to be more terrifying than Nick Nolte.