The Spiderwick Chronicles

2008, Movie, PG, 97 mins


The obvious product of a corporate search for the next great fantasy franchise, this adaptation of the first in a series of popular children's books by the writer-illustrator team of Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi is a lump of leaden whimsy.

Nine-year-old twins Simon and Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore) and their 13-year-old sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), are uprooted when their parents separate, and their overwhelmed mom, Helen (Mary-Louise Parker), moves them from New York City to the spooky country home she inherited from dotty Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick (Joan Plowright). Mallory and Simon understand that their father left them for another woman and that in their new strained circumstances, they need to make the best of things. But angry, uncooperative Jared adores his father and dedicates himself to stirring up trouble. Naturally, he's the one who finds the hidden room where their great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) — who vanished under mysterious circumstances 80 years earlier — devoted his life to writing "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You," an encyclopedic study of the ways and wonders of fairies, goblins, sprites and their ilk. Naturally, Jared finds the book, ignores its cover warning not to read it, and unleashes all manner of supernatural mayhem. The book, evidently, is coveted by a vicious ogre (Nick Nolte), who would use its secrets to rule the world. Arthur Spiderwick placed his home within a magic circle so the book would be safe, but Jared's meddling has placed it in danger. With the help of elf Thimbletack (voice of Martin Short) — whose introduction is a blatant rip-off of the classic "E.T. in the closet" screaming scene — and hobgoblin Hogsqueal (voice of Seth Rogan), Jared must figure out how to protect the book — and his family — from the goblin army massing on their front lawn.

The appeal of the Spiderwick books lies largely in their combination of real-world family dynamics, cleverly written riddles and rhymes, and DiTerlizzi's charming, Victorian-inspired illustrations of marvelous creatures large and small. The film keeps the unhappy family drama, but magic is conspicuously absent: The state-of-the-art creature effects are strikingly ugly and more reminiscent of low-rent efforts like GHOULIES (1985) than genre gold standards such as HARRY POTTER and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. And the story, frankly, is dull. It's essentially a siege tale, watered down for youngsters and interrupted by side trips, and the Grace siblings are less characters than character points: The bossy one, the conciliatory one, the hothead who's going to learn a lesson. Frankly, it's hard to care whether or not the goblins get them. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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