The Spiderwick Chronicles was one of many fantasy books turned to movie upon the success The Lord of the Rings and more notably Harry Potter. The movie did receive mostly positive reviews however that did not prevent it from flopping at the box office. The story is about divorced mother Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) bringing her children Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twin brothers Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore) to the secluded house of a lost relative. The children find a journal of the relative Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). This journal containes information on all of the creatures that normally stay hidden in the worls like fairies and trolls. The troll Mulgrath (Nick Nolte) wants the journal to take over the world.
While there are movies that feel more like cheap and lazy cash ins like Eragon and The Seeker, The Spiderwick Chronicles feels like it is actually trying. The plot has elements that could be from Harry Potter, but it is not the beat for beat retread from say Eragon. You do have that hidden world element along with magical creatures, but it is repackaged nicely in a kind of Charles Darwin exploration and cataloging of this mystical world.
The story works best bundled with the surprisingly well written character stories. Much of the story is about Jared coming to terms with his parents divorce. In the beginning he is a complete ass to his mom and a bit of a troublemaker. I actually like that because it gives his character an arc. Many of the problems with these movies are the protagonist is a perfect goody goody from the start. Here he has to get over some personal problems and at times it was more interesting than the magical stuff.
There was something about this movie though that kept it from being great. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. One thing I hear is the writers combined several of the Spiderwick books into one movie. That might be the case because the story did seem to meander a bit. We do have to wait a while until we finally learn about an actual threat to the children. The world also doesn’t seem as large as it should be. After all, we are told that there is an entire world hidden from us that is just now being exposed, and in the end we spend most of the movie in a cabin in the woods speaking to a few trolls and fairies. Or it could be that some of the writing to get our protagonists out of danger is a bit too childish even for a children’s story. What harms the trolls? Ketchup. Maybe that could have been established better but it seems way too goofy for me.
The acting of the movie is pretty good all around. Nick Nolte as usual plays a homeless man well and Mary-Louise Parker is charming enough as the mother way in over her head. David Strathairn is fine although he doesn’t get nearly enough time. The best performance goes to Freddie Highmore who plays the twins. Even though it sounds like a cutsie gimmick, he actually does a good job in making them distinct and you don’t think about it after a few minutes.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is an entertaining movie. It establishes its own universe which is distinct enough to not feel like a retread. The characters are interesting and you are genuinely invested in seeing what happens next. There is something lacking from the writing which keeps me from saying this is a great movie. Whether that be from losing something from translation from the books or whether it is something else I’m not too sure about. Still, as a children’s film I certainly recommend it.