Published at: Jan. 30, 2008, 7:38 a.m. CST by merrick
Hola all. Massawyrm here.
Remember the first time you saw that really great Bridge to Terabithia trailer? When those of you like me, unfamiliar with the book, dreamed of this wonderful children's fantasy story about a young boy who discovers a magical land of fantasy? In his backyard? The same way many of us did when we were children? Well, Terabithia failed to deliver on the promise of its trailer. Love it or not, it had nothing at all to do with discovering a magical land filled with goblins, fairies and ogres. Instead, that movie you dreamt of – that movie is called The Spiderwick Chronicles. And it absolutely delivers.
One of the main problems plaguing fantasy these days is none other than Harry Potter himself. While it was partly the wild, unprecedented success of the Potter franchise that led to the current fantasy explosion, it is also something that hangs around the neck of every new franchise like a dead albatross. Is it the next Harry Potter? asks every magazine and blog this side of the globe. And much like it was 30 years ago with Star Wars, every studio out there is trying to find their own way to duplicate the magic. There certainly have been a lot of attempts. New Line recently gave it a go with The Golden Compass. Fox tried twice in a year with the abysmal Eragon and then the even more dreadful The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. If it's a book series aimed at kids, then no doubt a studio has the rights and has Potter on the mind.
What works about The Spiderwick Chronicles is that it decidedly feels like its own thing. Unlike every other post-Potter family fantasy work, this film feels like it was created and conceived by someone who expunged all thoughts of Potter from their head. It feels complete. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It never feels like part one of a God knows how many picture series. The Spiderwick Chronicles is an exploration into a universe all its own – an inventive, wonderful world which draws from classic folklore and weaves old myths and tales into a brand new ones.
And I'll be damned if it doesn't have those classic 80's sensibilities from back when it was okay to scare kids. When it was okay for kids to defend themselves against vicious creatures that wanted them dead. When the kids knew exactly what the hell was going on and the adults just didn't believe them. That's The Spiderwick Chronicles. It is an adventure film, one that never requires them to go any further than their backyard because their backyard is dangerous enough. And wonderful enough. And beautiful enough.
And when this film isn't busy giving kids the fuel for hundreds of hours of imagination in their own backyards, it is playing all the right notes to woo fantasy fans of any age. This is a world were even the most beautiful and friendly of fairy can be dangerous, even deadly. And what makes this book so important to the story is that it tells you everything you need to know to navigate the politics of this strange world. In the hands of the right person, this book can open untold possibilities of friendships and adventures. But in the wrong hands, it could lead to a veritable holocaust of all things magical. And it is that dark and somewhat ominous possibility that drives this film and creates such an enthralling piece of fantastical fiction.
But what I love most about this film is that it never falls into the trap of the passive hero. This is what drove me so nuts about Stardust and why a few of the Potter films didn't sit so well with me. For some reason most fantasy films aimed at kids involve the kid getting into bad situations in which adults or magical creatures always show up and fix things. Hell, it isn't until the third Harry Potter story until Harry actually brings about a happy ending on his own. Previously it was either his magical melting touch or a hat full of goodies dropped off by Dumbledore that ultimately saved Harry. But here, it is entirely the kids. On their own. They get themselves into trouble and they find ways, whether through cleverness or moxie, to get themselves out.
In fact, if this film reminded me of anything, it is more in line with The Goonies than it is anything else. A little bit of horror mixed with a little bit of adventure mixed with a whole lot of fantasy. The result is one of the more satisfying of the big budget fantasy offerings in recent years.
The performances in this are pretty awesome. This Freddie Highmore kid is going places. He had me convinced for the first 20 minutes of the film that he had an older brother that they'd gotten for the film. He plays a pair of twins, but does so giving each character their own distinct mannerisms and speech patterns. It is the type of nuanced performance you'd expect out of a thirty year old rather than someone his age. And it tickles me to no end that of all the many monstrous forms that the Ogre Mulgrath assumes, it is the minute he spends as Nick Nolte that scares the kids out of the theatre. Say what you will, but Nolte takes that single minute and crafts one of the scariest kids performances…probably ever. Whether or not that was acting, well, that's up for debate. Seth Rogen is hilarious every second his hobgoblin is on screen and I was dumbstruck when I saw Martin Short did the voice of Thimbletack – it is unlike anything you've ever heard out of him.
Is it perfect? Naw. There's a few moments that feel a bit too exposition-y, but never quite to the level of The Golden Compass and its white dwarf-like density. Just a few, sporadic moments of "Quick, the book said that these things do this if we do that!" Nothing unforgivable, especially since the rest of the story unfurls in such an elegant, deliberate fashion. But in context, everything works.
This film comes Highly Recommend for anyone looking for a good family or fantasy film, especially those looking for something to hold them over until Prince Caspian or Half Blood Prince. This is sweet enough, endearing enough, and most importantly, good enough to find its name mentioned among those series. Without a doubt one of the more satisfying things you are bound to see this season.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.