(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: A family being torn by divorce moves into an old family house--a dark mansion miles from anywhere. It seems the surrounding area is infested with invisible creatures of Celtic faerie including an ogre who has designs on ruling the world. One by one the whole family is drawn into the battle against the invisible forces that would destroy the world. The film is an adaptation of five popular children's books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

If one remembers the classic fantasy films, one thinks of films like THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and KING KONG. One does not think of these as telling much of human drama. In these films a sailor saves this shrunken princess fiancée, a man goes on a quest that has something to do with winning back his kingdom, a destitute woman has to take a job that puts her in danger from a large animal. I suppose the last is the closest to being about real humans. E.T. was about a family suffering from a painful divorce. BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA was about surviving the loss of a close friend. I think I know people who have these sorts of problems unlike the problems in the earlier films. THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES has ogres and fairies and a griffin, but at base it is the story of a family being torn apart by the father leaving his family. There was a time when films did not have such realistic characters, but since kids are no longer shielded from such tawdry matters in the real world, films seem to not be worried about shielding them either. In any case, characters with such real-world problems lend the film some real-world credibility.

The Grace family is going through a hard patch. The father, Richard (Andrew McCarthy in one short scene), has gone to live with a lady friend. Mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) has to find a cheap place to live and that means the family's mysterious old house off in the middle of nowhere. This place is so old it still has a multitude of Celtic creatures who live all around the house and surrounding grounds. But nobody can see all these spirits because being spirits they are invisible. (Never fear, they will be more than visible enough when the time comes. The film does not waste a CGI opportunity.) It seems a giant war for nothing less than control of the world is going on here right around this old house. The key to that battle is a Book of Power written eighty years earlier by weird old Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). (At last I get to the main characters of the story.) Pulled into the battle are the Grace twins, Jared and Simon (played respectively by Freddie Highmore and Freddie Highmore, through the magic of digital imagery). Also pulled into the fray is officious older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger). But the real stars of the show, at least for the young at heart, are the menagerie of magical creatures from Celtic folklore. What they are all doing in (some unspecified place in) the United States is unclear. And if this is all happening in the space of a few acres, what is happening in the next county over?

Freddie Highmore (who turned 16 the day before I saw this film) seems to be specializing in fantasy films. He has been played King-to-be Arthur in THE MISTS OF AVALON, Peter (the inspiration for Pan) in FINDING NEVERLAND, Charlie Bucket in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, Pantalaimon's voice in THE GOLDEN COMPASS, and a double role in this film. He plays both sons of the Grace family: Jared who starts the ball rolling by finding the magic book and Simon who is pulled into the adventure (figuratively and literally). In smaller roles are a number of name actors including Mary-Louise Parker, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, and Martin Short. The latter plays the faerie equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. He turns green and inflates when he is angry. Some of the creatures are supposed to be terrible, but none is particularly terrifying for any child much beyond six or seven. Most are strongly reminiscent of the artwork of Brian Froud. Though I looked in vain to find his name appear in the credits, his influence is all over the film. Violence is kept to a minimum and the splattered red is not blood, it is tomato sauce.

The dialog is generally good, but perhaps a little too good to be coming from the mouths of average teenagers. The screenplay bears the names Karey Kirkpatrick, David Barenbaum, and (impressively) John Sayles. Side note: Sayles got his start writing the screenplay for PIRANHA back in 1978. Later he also worked on ALLIGATOR, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS, and THE HOWLING. And he is not done writing for fantasy films. His name is associated with the screenplay for a third sequel to JURASSIC PARK.

Fantasy films are definitely having a heyday with the current ways to create visual images and with more sophisticated views of more realistic characters. THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES gets a respectable low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. The film is reputedly based on all five Spiderwick stories so there is no risk of leaving fans up in the air with a partially completed series and no more financing. It is not clear right now if the story of THE GOLDEN COMPASS will ever be completed, but this Spiderwick story is completely self-contained.

Film Credits:

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper