A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 403 – The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick Chronicles – April 7th, 2011

I should state up front that it has been years since I read any of the books that this movie is based on. Back when they first came out we knew at work that they’d be hot commodities. After all they were short, fantasy based in the real world (or starting there anyhow), male and female protagonists and that’s not touching the physical shape of the books. They’re small. Made to look like little journals, almost. And we were right. They were popular from the start and they’ve never really gone out of favor. The thing is, when a book or series is that popular, I usually don’t go back to it.

Popular series don’t need my help. Something that got as popular as this? I don’t need to do much to talk it up. I read the books when they came out and then I let the kids take them. So, going into this tonight I admit, I honestly remembered very little of the specific events. I remembered the general overview and I remembered the characters and I remembered the Field Guide itself and details of the world the story is set in, but events? No. Which, to be honest, is a little frustrating for me. When a movie is based on a book that I’ve read, I like to be able to spot the changes and alterations. Sometimes they make for interesting review fodder and sometimes they’re just plain interesting. Or inexplicable. And I couldn’t do that tonight. I had to watch this movie largely on its own merits.

And on its own merits? It’s a perfectly nice kids’ fantasy adventure movie. It’s not breaking any records or doing anything revolutionary, but it’s fun. Oh, I’ve got quibbles, but I enjoyed it, so that counts a lot in its favor. What counts even more in its favor is that one of the key elements of the books – something I do remember – was kept in. The books revolve around the Grace family: twins Simon and Jared, their older sister Mallory, their mother and their great uncle Arthur Spiderwick. Spiderwick discovered and studied all of the supernatural creatures that lived around his home in the country. Pixies, brownies, goblins, dragons, trolls, griffins, fairies and so on. He wrote up all his findings in a book and then discovered that having all the secrets of creatures who preferred to be hidden might be a little dangerous (duh). He disappeared one day, leaving his young daughter alone. We pick up with the Graces moving into his old house and Jared discovering the field guide, then getting targeted by an ogre who wants the book.

The thing I loved? Mallory. She’s the older sister and she fences. What? I like swords! And a book for kids involving a modern girl who fences? Fantastic. They kept her fencing in the movie and I am thrilled that they did. They could have left it out, made her less useful in comparison to the twins. And she does play the skeptic role for a little bit, but soon enough she knows that what Jared claims is truly going on and teams up with him and Simon. I love seeing them work cooperatively even as they bicker like siblings do. I love seeing Mallory fight off goblins with her sword and be utterly competent throughout the movie. Fantastic. Really though, I enjoyed the whole family. The family drama of the parents’ divorce and all seemed like an afterthought to give the story an emotional “real world” element, but since it is such an afterthought it doesn’t make much of an impression upon me. Otherwise, the family is nicely presented, with problems and arguments but ultimately loving and supportive of each other.

The other major factor that makes the books so popular (in my opinion) is the magical creatures and the discovery of them. I remember loving the concept of there being a guide to the creatures themselves and indeed, there is a published version of it, full of sketches and hand-written notes. The trouble is that something like that doesn’t translate well to a moving picture, so we discover the creatures on the screen and rely on people looking at the book and reading bits aloud. While that mimics some of how it must have gone in the books, it doesn’t quite feel right. Not something one could get around, really, which is a pity. They did well overall, but I kept feeling like there was so much I was missing. Part of that, however, is that this movie is an amalgamation of the five book series. Of course things are combined and elided and cut out. Each book is far too short to make a whole movie, so I don’t argue with the combination. Overall it works a little smoother than, say, A Series of Unfortunate Events, which only took the first three and followed each one through introduction, exposition, climax and resolution. But it feels sparse in places, with effects and action taking the place of the exploration I was hoping for.

Still, as I said, I enjoyed the movie. I had fun watching it and not just because it had David Strathairn as Arthur Spiderwick. I liked all the different creatures and I enjoyed the performances, especially Freddie Highmore pulling a Parent Trap to play both twins. I loved Mallory, played nicely by Sarah Bolger. Mulgarath was just threatening enough, even if I did feel he could have benefitted from a little more nuanced motivation. But until I go back and read the books and see if there’s more nuance there I can’t really blame the movie there. Regardless of its issues, it’s a fun movie to watch, with plenty of positives and a nicely crafted fantastical world.

April 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Spiderwick Chronicles

April 7, 2011

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Freddie Highmore and Freddie Highmore star in… The Spiderwick Chronicles. I read these books one weekend a couple years back because, well, my wife works in a library and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. They’re quick, fun, interesting books that reminded me of childhood favorites like The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. I love tales of regular people interacting with the magical but dangerous realm of fairie and these books captured that perfectly. This movie adaptation crams a lot of scenes from four or five books into a single film and spices things up with some big action scenes, which is how these sort of things get done I suppose. I enjoyed it well enough I suppose but it lacked a certain charm that the books had.

As with the books the movie centers on young Jared Grace, his twin brother Simon, his elder sister Mallory and his mother Helen. They have just moved out to the country to the home of Helen’s crazy aunt: a dilapidated and run down old house far from the city where they grew up. Jared in particular is upset by this move because he wants to stay with his father. Jared is, we are told, prone to fits of anger that have gotten him into a great deal of trouble in the past. His family kind of holes that a change of scenery will help to calm him down and make him easier to live with.

It is not fated to be, however. Behind the kitchen wall Jared discovers a dumbwaiter which he rides up to a secret study hidden deep inside the house. There he makes a wonderful find; he discovers Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. His great great uncle, you see, had at one time compiled a guide to fairies, boggarts, nixies, goblins, and all the other mythical woodland beasts that lived around his house. He catalogued them and observed their habitats. He befriended them. Unfortunately his guide was also his downfall because it revealed secrets about the magical creatures in its pages which could be used to find and destroy them. An evil ogre named Mulgarath set his sights upon capturing the tome, ad Arthur Spiderwick hid it in desperation deep inside his house. Then he vanished, leaving his daughter alone. This was eighty years ago. Now his daughter, Jared’s great aunt Lucinda is believed to be insane and resides in a sanitarium.

When Jared discovers the book and starts to read it the whole process begins again. He needs to convince his siblings that he is not insane and find a way to protect the book from Mulgarath.

All of this is roughly the same in the books, but there’s more leisure to explore the characters and the magical world they find themselves in. Because all of the books have been distilled here into a single ninety minutes things are a bit rushed, which I kind of regretted. One of the biggest advantages to the books are the intricate and detailed illustrations that give shape to the fairie world. Tony DiTerlizzi’s vision of faries and other magical creatures seems heavily influenced by Brian Froud and other artists in the genre – they’re gorgeous and spellbinding. I never found any of the many, many digital creatures that inhabit this movie as captivating. Perhaps because we never really get an opportunity to just observe them. The time constraints of fitting so much plot into such a short space means that there’s not much time for introspection or artistry – everything has to keep moving quickly on to the next plot point.

It is a fun movie though. In what seems to be a standard happening for this kind of adaptation of a well loved children’s book there’s some great star power in evidence. The ever wonderful David Strathairn, for example is Arthur Spiderwick. Lucinda is not so much the broken, hunched, brittle woman I remember from the books, but that is because she is played by the effervescent Joan Plowright. There are Nick Nolte and Andrew McCarthy in very brief cameos, and the voices of Seth Rogen and Martin Short. The real stars of the movie are Sarah Bolger as Mallory and Freddie Highmore as the twins. It’s especially a joy to watch Freddie since he spends so much time talking to and interacting with himself – playing two very different brothers. It’s some great acting in terms of giving such different characters to the two roles and it’s also impressive that he works with the special effects necessary to blend him with himself so effortlessly that its hard not to think that the movie doesn’t actually star twins. (Freddie doesn’t have a twin brother we don’t know about, does he?)

Watching Freddie in this dual role makes me look forward to some other movies that do the same thing. Amanda and I are thinking about getting the original Hailey Mills Parent Trap for example. And I’ve always wanted to get Adaptation with Nick Cage playing the Kaufman brothers who were credited with adapting that screenplay and were nominated for an Oscar for it. (I have always regretted that they didn’t win that – it would have been the first Oscar ever awarded to a fictional character I think. But that’s a different review for a different day.) For tonight I will simply say that while this movie is not without its merits I very much preferred the books.

April 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment