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The Spiderwick Chronicles by Mark Waters (dir), Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum & John Sayles (wr)
Review by Drew Bittner
Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon  
Date: 01 February 2008 /

You know how you're nervous that a movie won't live up to the source material? That you'll see a lesser work, "inspired by" something really terrific? Well, it's about ten times worse when you know the writer and are really hoping against hope that Hollywood got it right.

Have no fear: The Spiderwick Chronicles is not that movie.

Based on the series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, and featuring Freddie Highmore as Simon and Jared Grace, Sarah Bolger as their older sister Mallory, Mary-Louise Parker as their mom, Nick Nolte as Mulgarath, and David Strathairn as Arthur Spiderwick, the film is truly magical.

The story in brief: the Grace family has moved into an old, run-down country house left to the mother (Parker) by her Aunt Lucinda (the magnificent Joan Plowright), who is in a sanitarium. Lucinda's father, Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), was obsessed with fairies -- and, she claims, one day they took him away. Now the Graces -- Mallory (Bolger) and her twin brothers, Simon and Jared (Highmore) -- are living in the house since the breakup of their parents.

Simon is a student of nature, Mallory is an ardent student of fencing ... and Jared is a student of trouble-making. Angry and sullen, Jared calls his father (Andrew McCarthy) over and over, begging to live with him instead. Jared hears something in the wall and accidentally discovers a long-forgotten room, where he finds Spiderwick's "Field Guild to the Fantastic World Around You". This book assembles everything Spiderwick learned about fairies -- and it comes with a warning not to read it lest dire consequences befall.

Jared learns pretty quickly the warning was a serious one. He meets Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), the brownie/boggart guardian of the Field Guide, and learns that the ogre Mulgarath (Nolte) will stop at nothing to have the book for himself. With its knowledge, the ogre can destroy the other fairies and perhaps even attack the human world.

Jared stubbornly refuses to heed the warnings and reveals to goblin spies that the Field Guide has been found. This results in Simon's kidnapping, an attack on Mallory, and ultimately a goblin assault on the house itself. Unless Jared can find Arthur Spiderwick, it seems certain that the Grace family will meet its doom.

The movie begins with a flashback to Arthur Spiderwick's frantic effort to protect his book, then races forward 80 years to the Graces' arrival. Each character is drawn vividly from the very beginning, from Simon's zen-like pacifism and studiousness to Jared's angry tirades, Mallory's exasperated-but-affectionate older sister to Mrs. Grace's weary, slow-motion emotional breakdown. In ten minutes, we know who these people are.

Highmore is absolutely fantastic as both Grace brothers, endowing each with his own distinctive speech patterns, mannerisms, even expressions, while Bolger is terrific as the older sister whose love for the brothers is only rivaled by her frustration with them. And Parker shines in a role that is particularly demanding: She's falling apart inside while struggling to keep herself together for the sake of her kids. She doesn't have a lot of screen time to get the point across, but she makes it clear what's going on.

The forward momentum never lets up through the rapid-fire introduction of many characters in a short span of time. Seth Rogen does a hilarious turn as Hogsqueal, the hobgoblin out to avenge his family on Mulgarath, and Nolte has rarely been more menacing -- either in human form or as the voice of the massive ogre.

One of the movie's true wonders is Joan Plowright, who invests Lucinda with luminous heart and soul despite a lifetime of sorrow and misunderstanding. Her story is a tragic one; though it's told quickly, she invests her character with the sum of that story's unhappiness and desperate faith. She deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

This is a film made for children on the old Disney model: real danger, real challenges, and kids who have to find the answers for themselves. It is also a classic folktale, wherein the heroes cannot triumph by superior strength; they must be smart and use the knowledge they've earned, winning by wits rather than muscles. On all these points, Spiderwick succeeds admirably.

Director Mark Waters brings out enchanting performances from his talented cast, but also creates an entire world of magical creatures in and around the huge Spiderwick house. It is a herculean task to make the real fit side-by-side with the surreal, but Waters manages in terrific style. Likewise, screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles deliver a taut, amazingly faithful adaptation of the books, capturing their essence in only an hour and a half -- truly a great feat of screenwriting. If the new Spiderwick books are made into a movie, this team must be reassembled, because they know how to do it right.

Although scary for very young children, I believe this is a film that parents and their kids will watch over and over, enjoying its magic for many years to come.

Strongly recommended.

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