Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2008

A brief history of magic

'Spiderwick' succeeds where others have failed

The Spiderwick Chronicles
Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies
Director: Mark Waters
Screenplay: Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Sarah Bolger, Nick Nolte, Seth Rogen, David Strathairn, Martin Short and Jean Plowright
Rated PG / 1 hour, 37 minutes
(out of four)

The principal problem with movies like The Spiderwick Chronicles - the fantasy-horror genre, only aimed at kids - is that they almost always lack the sense of mortal danger you might normally feel in a slightly more adult-oriented film. The threat only feels as dangerous as if you were reading something in a storybook; the stakes rarely feel so high that you even consider the possibility that things won't work out as happily as possible.

In other words, by necessity, the danger and suspense are tempered by the PG rating. The best exception I can think of from recent years is Monster House - and even then, the shift from childhood to adulthood was a major theme of the film, so there was already an inherent shift in a more grown-up direction.

The Spiderwick Chronicles almost can't help but be hindered by its own nature - after all, it can only be so dark and so scary before it's no longer a movie for kids. But thankfully, the film finds other ways to succeed that counterbalance its limitations. It just goes to show how far a good crew and a good cast can get you. Spiderwick has both.

Indie-film giant and master of character work John Sayles co-wrote the screenplay. Michael Kahn (Steven Spielberg's editor for the last 30 years) cut it. Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ, The Right Stuff, The Natural, Being There) shot it. In other words, they made sure to get the technical details right, and the result is a well-realized visual atmosphere and a crisply told story.

The Grace family - twin sons Simon and Jared (Freddie Highmore), daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and Mom (Mary-Louise Parker) - has just moved into a new home in the New England countryside, the Spiderwick Estate, an old, crumbling family heirloom. The father is temporarily out of the picture - a fact not lost on Jared, the angry and frustrated of the twins. His brother, Simon, is more of a pragmatist. And, he confesses, a pacifist.

The house itself is a crucial character. It's old, its walls are crumbling and it shows all the signs of having been lived in by two generations of allegedly paranoid eccentrics - Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) and his daughter Lucinda.

But, as Jared discovers upon opening Arthur's Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, they weren't so eccentric after all. The quirks in and around the house are all there for a reason. Suddenly, Jared - and eventually Simon and Mallory - can perceive a whole different world around him, full of magic, fantastical creatures and, yes, danger. It would be pointless to name or even describe each species or creature in the film, but suffice it to say that an ominous force is descending upon the house and its inhabitants, and all they want is that book.

And not, as you might have guessed, for admirable reasons.

The villain is a shape-shifting ogre named Mulgarath, who first appears in the form of a rickety, hunched old man played by Nick Nolte, with his unmistakable voice and quietly threatening demeanor. On the opposite side, there are those who want to help the Grace family - namely the rodent-like Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) and the free-spirited, bird-munching Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen), whose appearance you can probably guess just by his name.

But going over the details isn't important until the film needs them to be important. There are many reasons why this film works better than it could have, or possibly even should have. The technical expertise is there, and the casting is spot-on.

Freddie Highmore has shown talent (particularly in Finding Neverland) and in this movie . . . well, he had to do something to make up for the wretched experience of August Rush. And so in Spiderwick he does twice the penance by playing two roles. Though he can't quite hide his British accent, he is at least able to draw distinctions between his two roles.

Nolte and Strathairn are as reliable as actors come, so they're no surprise. The real star, for me at least, is thanks to Rogen's voicework. Rogen (Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks) injects Hogsqueal with energy and gruff humor, and his is the strongest voice performance of the many on display.

The filmmakers of Spiderwick covered their bases. Whenever the film teeters between Viable Drama and Children's Drama, there's always something - a performance, a special effect, an action sequence - to keep its head well above water.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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