The Spiderwick Chronicles Movie Review

It's time to declare the search for the next Harry Potter over and give J.K. Rowling and her boy wizard the title of ultimate family fantasy franchise in perpetuity. Perhaps that will keep audiences from suffering through more underwhelming wannabes like The Spiderwick Chronicles. After a year that saw Stardust, The Golden Compass, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and the anticipated arrival of another trip to Narnia, no one has yet to top Hogwart's or those who dwell inside its hallowed halls. Spiderwick is no different. It's all a big, implausible CGI payoff, lacking the necessary context to engage its audience.

It's been a tough few weeks for the Grace family. An impending divorce has seen Mom (Mary-Louise Parker) and her three kids -- oldest daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twin boys Jared and Simon (Freddie Highmore) -- leaving New York and heading to the country, where a crazy aunt's (Joan Plowright) rundown residence awaits them. After hearing a noise in the walls, one of the boys breaks open a secret section, revealing a long forgotten attic room. In it, he finds the Spiderwick Chronicles, a book written by his great uncle (David Strathairn) concerning a magical world beyond reality. In this enchanted domain, fairies and other sprites battle ogres and goblins for the fate of all.

Initially, no one believes the book. But when house brownie Thimbletack (Martin Short) makes himself known, it all becomes very real -- including the army of creatures led by the evil Mulgarath (Nick Nolte). They want the book, and will stop at nothing to get it, even if that means destroying the Grace family once and for all.

Darker than one would expect, The Spiderwick Chronicles is kiddie-oriented fare for the postmodern ADHD-addled underling. It's all moving objects and animated placeholders. Trying to adapt all five of the Lemony Snicket-like novels into a single film may have seemed like a good idea when the project was being tossed around, but the air of rushed condensing permeates every element of this motion picture. Director Mark Waters, best known for the tween treats Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, takes a greatest hits approach to his narrative, hitting only the high points with as many computer-generated imps as possible. But since we get very little of the Spiderwick mythos in the process, we're overwhelmed by the supernatural spectacle.

Proving that August Rush was not just an awkward phase, Freddie Highmore's double-take performance reduces prepubescent mischief down to its Goofus and Gallant roots. While Jared is a jerk, Simon is making nice with the enchanted populace. Similarly, Sarah Bolger brings nothing new to the role of the dictatorial older sibling. Even in "I believe" mode, she's carrying too much adolescent aggression. As for the beasties, the voice work is merely adequate. Short's stint as Thimbletack is decent, if a tad shrill, and Seth Rogen gets his Shrek on as friendly hobgoblin Hogsqueal. But Nick Nolte's extended cameo as Mulgarath is more Howard the Duck Dark Overlord than menacing, and both Plowright and Strathairn seem beamed in from another film.

Still, if you like your fantasy on the frilly side, if you want nothing but monster money shots and effects-laden action scenes, The Spiderwick Chronicles will definitely satisfy such one-sided needs. There's no greatness or gravitas here, just a Ghoulies for the post-millennial crowd, complete with lots of short attention span flash. It's also indicative of what's wrong with all the proto-Potter positioning. There is much more to Rowling's magical realm than dragons, derring-do, and Dumbledore. Sadly, those looking to mimic its success seem to forget that. The Spiderwick Chronicles sure does.

Stop. Dinner time.


The Spiderwick Chronicles Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG-13, 2008


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