The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick ChroniclesSynopsis: From the moment the Grace family moves into a secluded old house, strange things start to happen. As Jared (Freddie Highmore, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory) investigates, he discovers Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide and the unbelievable truth of the Spiderwick Estate: a secret world with fantastical creatures hides within our own! Now Jared, his sister and his twin brother are pulled into an unforgettable adventure as they try to protect the secrets of the book. Based on the beloved series of best selling books and filled with non stop action, The Spiderwick Chronicles is “a terrific fantasy for all ages!”

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The Spiderwick Chronicles 7.5

eyelights: its plot. the CGI animation.
eyesores: the broadness of the performances. the script’s lapses in logic.

“You don’t see us, now you do, but only if we want you to.”

‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ is a reasonably entertaining young teen fantasy motion picture based on the eponymous series of books. Released in 2008, it covers the five main books, skipping or changing many of their plot points to condense the entire story into one 90-minute film. Based on everything that I’ve read, one could safely say that is inspired from the original novels.

‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ introduces us to twin brothers Jared and Simon and their elder sister Mallory, who move to Spiderwick Estate with their newly-separated mother. In that old manor, which has been given to their mother by their great-aunt Lucinda, they discover great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick’s mysterious book called ‘Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You’.

This 80-years-old hand-written book is an encyclopedia of various local faeries. It is a powerful tome that is sought after by various otherworldly creatures. Jared is the central figure in this picture and he drags his siblings into all sorts of amusing, awe-inspiring and treacherous encounters with these creatures as they try to prevent them from getting their hands on the book.

I still remember when the movie poster graced the store window of my local comic book shop. It looked mysterious enough that it intrigued me some, but not enough to go see it. It did reasonably well at the box office, and the reviews I read were generally favourable – albeit not outstanding. It piqued my curiosity further and, when I got the chance to get the blu-ray for a song, I picked it up.

My first impression was that this was really made for younger, less discerning audiences: the performances were broad, there were needlessly silly side characters, it’s filled with CGI eye-candy, doesn’t always hold up under scrutiny, and it felt rushed, not tying its loose ends together neatly. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s entertaining and goes down relatively easily.

I suspect that the picture would have benefitted from being shot as a five-part mini-series of one hour each. Since each book is relatively short (it was geared towards younger readers, after all), they would have been better-suited to such a format. It’s clear that they couldn’t each become a full-length movie. But it’s also quite apparent that truncating and adapting them wasn’t ideal either.

The film also suffers from its performances – not so much the casting, as I’m sure each of these actors could have done better. I’m not sure who’s to blame but, as reference, director Mark Waters has mostly handled substandard comedies – not serious drama. It’s interesting to note that the best performances come from the animated characters, many of which have the double purpose of comic relief.

Many critics have noted Freddie Highmore for his performance as both Jared and Simon, with most saying that he acquitted himself nicely of the parts, making them distinct. I agree: he made them distinct enough that I didn’t even realize that they were supposed to be twins. The problem is that Highmore’s performances are so pronounced that they could hardly be thought of as real people.

The problem extends to even seasoned veterans like Mary-Louise Parker and David Strathairn, who aren’t believable one bit (although the latter was tolerable). The only actor who walked the fine line between theatre and reality was Joan Plowright – but she had very little screen time. Mind you, this type of over-acting is endemic of cinema aimed at younger audiences.

My biggest issue with ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ is that it sometimes makes very little sense – so little, in fact, that I would throw my arms up in bewilderment (no, this is not a regular practice!). I offer you the following Exhibits as examples:

Exhibit A
Jared hears a sound behind the wall, so he takes a broom and punches holes into it. WTF. Talk about impulse control problems and inadequate problem-solving skills. This is the kind of moron who can’t untie his shoes so he cuts their Velcro bonds. They have meds for that.

Taking the broom from Jared’s hand, Mallory also hits the wall, opening up a panel in it. Even though their house is in the middle of nowhere (i.e. there is no ambient noise) the mother doesn’t hear the crashing sound of the panel opening up a huge hole in the wall. No worries.

The kids find a dumb-waiter hidden inside the wall. Inexplicably, some of their stuff is in it. Jared is blamed for stealing the others’ stuff even though they found the dumb-waiter together – plus which it was IN THE WALL. No wonder he has temper issues. I would have murder issues.

The siblings leave Jared to go up in the dumb-waiter by himself. He finds the book in a hidden part of the house – a huge room that no one found in 80 years. Because whole rooms just disappear like that. They must have hired the same architect as in ‘Murder By Death‘.

When Jared comes back down, everyone’s already in bed. Firstly, he wasn’t gone that long. And even if he had been, wouldn’t they look for him or wonder where he is? And what about the mom, who couldn’t hear crashing sounds or notice that one of her kids is missing?

I guess she won’t be winning the Parent-of-the-Year award!

Exhibit B
No one can see the faeries unless they make themselves visible. Fine. But Jared meets Hogsqueal, who spits in his eyes, granting him the ability to see them. Silly, but also fine. Thimbletack provided him with a stone ring through which anyone can look to see fairies. Fine.

But, later, there’s a scene in which Jared can see the faeries attacking Mallory outside the house’s protective circle, and Simon is giving her instructions to hit them. How could Simon see them with his bare eyes? Why wasn’t he as confused as Mallory was? Who knows!

Conveniently enough, not long after this incident, the kids find a unique one-sided eyeglass to put the stone ring in. With it, they can see faeries without holding the stone to their eye. I wonder why Thimbletack would have given them the ring, but not the eyeglass that goes with it.

Exhibit C
How is it that the protective circle remained in place for 80 years, even though no one else but Arthur and Lucinda knew what its true purpose was? You’d think that these rocks would have gotten displaced or removed altogether by someone who doesn’t know better.

Nope. This never happens, apparently. Not in 80 years.

The issues don’t extend to just the logic. There are some of the directorial choices that come into question from time to time. A perfect example is when the fairies go back at the end: they look like a bunch of pixels floating over a blanket of greenery. The sequence has such a crappy 2D quality about it, that it destroys any sense of wonderment that it should have been creating.

Perhaps ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ was rushed into cinemas and there was no time to send it back to be redone, but whatever the reason may be, moments like this should have been crafted with more skill. In the end, this and the haphazard way in which the books were picked apart for the script, leaves the audience with the impression that not enough care was invested into the picture.

I can’t even fathom how the fans feel about it. There must have been some disappointment, I’d imagine.

As someone who was completely unaware of the books, I already couldn’t ignore these issues. But I think that’s why I enjoyed the movie as much as did: because I had no attachment whatsoever to the original novels. As an outsider, I could enjoy the ride, imperfect as it was. Because, ultimately, although I wasn’t caught in its spell, ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ was entertaining enough.

And sometimes, that’s all that really matters.

Date of viewing: March 15, 2015

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