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The Spiderwick Chronicles

All Too Familiar Family-Oriented Fantasy Film

Directed by Mark Waters (Just Like Heaven, Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) and adapted from the series of children’s books written by Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles is the latest effort by a Hollywood studio to capitalize on the resurgent fantasy genre. Mixing fantasy with a modern-day setting, The Spiderwick Chronicles doesn’t succeed in either creating a fantastical world worth visiting or a family drama that transcends the usual genre clichés.

Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore), his twin brother, Simon (Highmore again), older sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and mother, Helen (Mary-Louise Parker), move from New York to the old, rundown Spiderwick Estate once owned by their great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) and, most recently, their great aunt, Lucinda (Joan Plowright), who has been institutionalized for telling (and apparently believing) tall stories about fairies, sprites, goblins, ogres, and trolls. The sullen, quick-tempered Jared wants to leave the Spiderwick Estate to be reunited with his father (Andrew McCarthy). The more even-tempered, introverted Simon seems comfortable with the move, while Mallory seems, if not content, then accepting of their mother's decision to relocate the family.

Suspicion immediately falls on Jared when household objects begin to disappear. Hearing noises in the walls, Jared begins to poke around the old house. He finds a plastered-in dumbwaiter that he promptly takes to a secret room on the top floor. Jared finds Arthur Spiderwick’s field guide to the world of fantastical creatures. Reading the book, however, has dire consequences for Jared and his family. Up pops a short-tempered, pint-sized fairy, a brownie named Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), an old friend of Arthur Spiderwick sworn to protect the book from the clutches of an evil shape-shifting ogre, Mulgrath (Nick Nolte), who, book in hand, will destroy the fairies and the other fantastical creatures that inhabit the Spiderwick Estate.

The Spiderwick Chronicles mixes dysfunctional family drama with fantasy. While the world of fairies and ogres may pose an existential threat to Jared and his family, it’s the conflicts inside Jared’s broken family that pose a real threat to him, if not physically, then emotionally and mentally. Given that The Spiderwick Chronicles is geared toward family audiences, it’s not surprising that those conflicts aren’t handled with subtlety or nuance. As simple and simplistic as The Spiderwick Chronicles is, it’s the uneven pace, repetitive exposition (meant, presumably, for young, inattentive children) and unnecessary tangents that slow dramatic momentum to a standstill far too many times.

Unfortunately, The Spiderwick Chronicles is also missing the sense of wonder and awe moviegoers have come expect from the fantasy or science fiction genres. With a storyline stubbornly fixated on protecting the Spiderwick house, the closest we get to that all-important wonder and awe is when Jared, Simon, and Mallory flee the house with the aid of a Griffin to a small sub-section of a fairy world we see briefly from the sky and never again. Whether due to budgetary constraints or fidelity to the source material, The Spiderwick Chronicles biggest failure is the inability of the characters and, by extension, audiences to feel like they’ve entered a never-before-seen, utterly new fantasy world, instead of one that feels like a pale imitation of other, much better films. As adapted by Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum, The Spiderwick Chronicles tries, but fails, to be either an engaging adventure or a poignant family drama.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars