Everyone, that is, except fantasy cinema. Ever since Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs stampeded across screens in Jurassic Park, filmmakers haven’t been able to stampede towards the mainframes fast enough with every piece of imaginative fiction they could throw an option at. But, for every Lord of the Rings where a filmmaker understands how to use CGI as a tool toward telling a compelling story, there are a dozen Golden Compasses where the vision begins and ends with designing the latest weird new critter—yeah, I’m also looking at you, George Lucas. Director Mark Waters’ adaptation of Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi’s The Spiderwick Chronicles marks yet another disappointing chapter in the ongoing saga of technical prowess being served up as both sizzle and steak.
A brief prologue establishes the back story of Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), a scientist whose research clearly crept into odd areas. Fast-forward 80 years, and his isolated country home is being taken over by his great-grand-niece (Mary-Louise Parker), a single mom with three kids: teenage fencing expert Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore). Jared is the most put-out by the family’s relocation—in addition to his parents’ recent separation—but he finds himself quickly distracted by discovering Spiderwick’s hidden journal. It’s actually a field guide to the habits and habitats of various fantastical beings—brownies, sprites, goblins, etc.—and, as such, it is of great interest to the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte … no, seriously!), for whom Spiderwick’s notes are the key to ruling the world.
The Spiderwick series’ fundamental concept is, admittedly, a delightful one—a hidden universe of wonders just beyond the human field of vision. But, to work its fullest magic, the idea requires patience. The classic tales of youthful encounters with the fantastic—The Wizard of Oz, E.T.—allowed their protagonists to discover amazement gradually. The Spiderwick Chronicles, like too many of its screen kin, doesn’t trust its audience to handle more than a moment without a full-throttle set piece. Jared discovers the Spiderwick Field Guide and almost instantly finds himself racing around to encounter a menagerie of menaces. It’s no wonder my 8-year-old son—who, incidentally, was already familiar with the books—leaned over at one point and muttered, “There’s too much going on.”
That sentiment applies even when the computer-generated creations aren’t the center of attention. The absent-father setup, one of the most tiresome clichés of fantasy kid-lit, proves utterly irrelevant as poor Freddie Highmore—one of the most gifted child actors of the decade—glowers and wrestles with an American accent. It’s even more befuddling watching a significant chunk of the film’s 90-minute runtime devoted to the tale of Spiderwick’s daughter Lucinda (Joan Plowright), an octogenarian driven to the edge of madness by her father’s sudden disappearance. Good to know the whole thing was really about whether Lucy would be reunited with Daddy.
Of course, to the extent that The Spiderwick Chronicles is really about anything, it’s about building the latest iteration in the technological arms race that is modern fantasy filmmaking. There are entertaining creations in Spiderwick: the brownie Thimbletack (Martin Short), who morphs into a green boggart when enraged, like a 4-inch-tall Incredible Hulk; and the hobgoblin Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), whose train of thought is derailed every time a bird flits by. But the narrative and the pacing never give those creations—or the human characters about whom we’re supposed to care—any time to breathe. There’s a lather-rinse-repeat absurdity to the structure: exposition, run, fight, comic relief, exposition, run, fight, comic relief.
And what troubled thoughts lurk inside young Jared’s head? How do his adventures relate to those troubles, aside from providing an improbable opportunity to confront Dad (Andrew McCarthy … no, seriously!) with a kitchen knife? Who cares? As long as the technical crew is cranking up the scary-realistic intensity, everyone seems to think they’ve done their job. Those of us hungry for real movie-storytelling magic walk away a little poorer, and only the guys who know how to manipulate the mainframes walk away richer.
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker