Harry gets caught up in THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES!
About 6 months ago I received a package with what felt like over a dozen different books on THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES. I’d heard there was a movie by Paramount coming, but they sent so many books and guides and the art of books – that it just seemed like everything, but the kitchen sink.
They arrived shortly before a party here at the Carport of the Stars. I liked the creatures – but before we got to reading them, they got packed away. Then, at Christmas – as I was shopping for presents for my nephew – I called my sister from a bookstore to ask what level he was reading at – and she shocked me by saying he had started reading “Chapter Books” – and that everyone at his 1st Grade class are reading the SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES.
Paramount has been… pretty aggressively campaigning me on this film. At FANTASTIC FEST they sent a clip that played before our screening of THERE WILL BE BLOOD… and I just didn’t feel it. I saw clips at something else – and it just didn’t seem to make sense. I suppose I should have read the books, but they’re in a box somewhere around here.
Today, I sponsored a screening as an extra special part of my Saturday Morning Kids Club of THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES.
I didn’t really know what the basic storyline was, beyond… a kid finds a book and it unlocks a world of goblins and ogres and faeries. However, as the credits rolled – I noticed something I didn’t know. I knew that the film was directed by Mark Waters – the man behind the remake of FREAKY FRIDAY and the much better MEAN GIRLS… but a man very unproven in terms of this type of film. A huge visual effects fantasy film. He’d hit the family film before, but nothing like this. What really struck me was the three names under the Screenplay by credit. David Berenbaum. He had written ELF… but what was scary was… he wrote ZOOM and HAUNTED MANSION – two of the worst written family effects film ever. Then there was Karey Kirkpatrick – he had his good side… THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, CHICKEN RUN and OVER THE HEDGE. But then – the third name on the screenplay credit was… JOHN SAYLES!?!?!?!?
That’s right – one of the writers on this was John Sayles. Could I tell? Often times you see names that you just can’t fathom were a part of the finished product. Here – I completely could tell.
This is a family fantasy film that is every bit a film about the power of fantasy and imagination – but at its heart – this is a film about surviving divorce, about struggling living with the parent that you blame for all the problems in your world, but is actually the source for everything that is right in your world.
This is a fantasy film with its heart strongly anchored in the reality of painful family politics.
The film begins with the creation of Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guild – which reveals the level of fantasy around this very special house that he lives in. Then, as suddenly as the movie begins, we’re rushed 80 years into the future – to a time, right around now. There’s a van with a pair of twin brothers and an older sister and a mom pulling up to a quiet, dark old house in the middle of the woods.
Jared – the most unhappy twin with the situation they find themselves in, is at odds with the family. He doesn’t understand the divorce. He believes his Dad wants to come back and that his mom (Mary Louise Parker) is responsible for why Dad isn’t with him. He just wants his dad to come get him.
Jared, like his twin Simon – is played by Freddie Highmore – and at the start of the film – I’m not at all behind him. I don’t understand why he’s so hard on his mother, yet the other two siblings seem so fine with her. What do they know, that he doesn’t? And if there is something, why don’t they tell him. He’s got a problem acting out his frustration with hitting things, by being non-responsive -- and the mother’s frustration is acted out by screaming… something she knows she has to stop – but its hard. The dynamic of a divorced single mother new home with kids – is actually quite accurate. I come from one, and I was not happy with my situation.
I acted out too.
Very quickly, the family dynamic has a new problem… Jared found his great uncle’s Field Guide – and despite a note warning him not to read it… what kid wouldn’t open a book with a warning not to read it? But when he opens it – it sends out a beacon… as if to tell the world… “Some idiot has touched the book” – in a way – it’s like the ring in LORD OF THE RINGS – but instead of indeterminate powers of darkness… this book has the secrets of magic and creatures. How to call a griffin into your service, how to form protective circles – and many many other rules to the magical realms. So much info, that it’s kinda like a Necronomicon for the Fantasy set.
And an evil master ogre named Mulgrath (Nick Nolte) – wants that book and now knows that a human has access to it – so he sends his goblin hordes – armed with a mole troll to go get these kids.
Now – how does this complicate the already complicated family dynamic?
Well, nobody trusts Jared. He’s not necessarily the boy who cried wolf… but he is the boy that hates it here – and screaming about Goblins, Brownies, Ogres and monsters… well that doesn’t really sound rational.
I’m not going to go much deeper into the story, because if you don’t know the plot twists and surprises it’s genuinely fun to see come to pass.
The film this most reminded me of isn’t Harry Potter, nor is it THE PAGEMASTER – it reminds me of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. There is genuine menace and threat to this PG tale. The thrilling scary parts are actually thrilling and scary.
Since LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER – there has been a ton of fantasy films coming out that want to become series. Now – I don’t know exactly how this works as a series – but I do love the world they create here. The Brownie, Thimbletack – voiced by Martin Short and the avian connoisseur, Hogsqueal the Hobgoblin voiced by Seth Rogan are both adorable, slightly threatening, but incredibly fun.
What I love about the film is the set of rules it lays down about the universe. How to keep evil out. How to burn a goblin’s skin. What a hobgoblin eats. What to feed a Brownie to make him/her like you. What to say to get a Griffin to take you to a magical realm.
It’s these little rules that I delighted in, and loved discovering. The effects work by Tippett Studios is again – remarkable. The Brownie Thimbletack is eerily realistic for something so whimsical. But more so, he’s a character – one that can blush, get angry, be frustrated and curious. Same with the character of Hogsqueal. He’s just a deliciously maniacal friendly creation – and how he blesses a human to see the magical realm – is delightful and grotesque. Very fun.
Now here’s a warning – The screening was a complete success – an entire group of little girl Brownies was skipping down the hallway giddily talking about how it was just like the book. One very small boy – age 3 got really scared of Nick Nolte’s character when he first appeared, but when Nick left the screen, the boy came back in.
There’s nothing to traumatize a young child in this movie, but it will thrill them. They could grab your arm or hide their eyes, but they’ll be compelled to look back at the screen.
This is a lush and beautiful fantasy film – the griffin flying sequence is breathtaking, the faeries are stunning. The performances by Joan Plowright and David Strathairn and in particular Mary Louise Parker anchor the adult side of the tale.
And the kids do react honestly… with awe, fear, wonder and excitement. I was genuinely surprised by this film, I didn’t expect the complexity of the family dynamic – the level of spectacle or the quality of the visual effects – and ultimately I didn’t expect to like the film and I very much did. Most of the adults in the room were really taken by how much they liked the movie, especially the parents. In fact, the only person I talked to at the screening that didn’t care for the film was my wife, Yoko – who was turned off by some of the violence and modern situations being mixed with the fantasy. But again, I feel that was an influence of John Sayles and something I liked quite a bit.
If you liked or loved BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA – this will really blow you away. It is leaps and bounds better than the LEMONY SNICKETT movie. Most importantly – it’s a big step up for director, Mark Waters – who did quite a bit of growing up with this film. This is a serious attempt at Family Fantasy Entertainment – very very well done.
P.S. I forgot to put this in before posting, but damn - James Horner does a wonderful job of scoring this film. It's been a while since Horner did a score that really got me, but easily a third of the reason I got so involved in this was his score work. It'll be a great excuse to pick up a new Horner score!