“Spiderwick” is a splendid fantasy

PG, 97 minutes, Paramount/Nickelodeon

Since the beginning of this decade, or more particularly since the emergence of such juggernaut blockbuster fantasy franchises like Tolkkien’s Lord of the Rings and Rowling’s Harry Potter adaptations, it seems forever certain that the door will be open for all of the world’s other authors in this genre to see their work come to life on screen. Hollywood is pretty much relying on the superhero and fantasy films to bring them in expected numbers each year at the box-office, so as time goes on we should expect the number of films like The Spiderwick Chronicles, the latest in the genre, to be on the swift production line. It was definitely a surprise to find out that Mark Waters was signed on to direct this film, which is a singular compilation of multiple Spiderwick books rolled into one. Waters is certainly not without talent, for he somehow helped the remake of Freaky Friday become better than expected, then later on constructed the surprisingly hilarious Mean Girls, and in 2005 the light-hearted Just Like Heaven. At first thought, he would seem a strange choice to direct a fantasy film like Spiderwick, but in retrospect, it came as a great chance to finally break away from the same genre he has been kind of stuck in since the beginning of his career. With obvious determination brought to every project, Waters has succeeded far better than I initially thought he would in this business, so it comes as no surprise that this film ends up on the winning end.

With this being in part a Nickelodeon produced fantasy, it would be easy and understandable for one to assume that it would be executed with a certain young target in mind. It could be easy to think that it would be another one of those kiddie adventures that parents are forced to be tortured through because their toddlers won’t stop badgering them to go see it on opening weekend. These assumptions, among others, will be thrown out the door and beaten to a pulp if Spiderwick is given its rightful chance, for it is no stereotypical Nickelodeon-ized film. It will scare the pants off of small children, entertain adolescents above that age and surprise adults, all the same. One of the many things that the movie does so unexpectedly well and is admired from the opening scene on, is fill its air with terrific, accomplished actors. The versatile and underrated David Strathairn lives in mostly flashbacks as Dr. Arthur Spiderwick, who devoted his entire life to the consuming effort of understanding the “different” world that exists just outside of his property. He mysteriously vanished some 80 years ago, leaving behind a unique mansion filled with the outcast workings of what most consider psychotic, and the few who dare to call it insightful and genius are banned from life and inserted into mental homes. Arhtur’s lifetime of work is in a book that has been sitting in his mansion for the last eight decades, building dust, never to be uncovered. That is until family generations later decide to move into the home. There is a single mother and her three kids, all trying to get away from the city after a separation has broken them apart from their husband and father. Mary-Louise Parker plays the mother in a fun role to see her in, and the children, one of them a daughter and the other two twin sons played by one individual, are harkened-back, classic adolescent adventure protagonists. The popular and rightfully busy actor Freddie Highmore does a fantastic job of playing the twins, each completely different in personalities, at a real level. Emma Bolger plays the older sister, who once the boys uncover secrets of the other world told about in Spiderwick’s book, must see considerable proof of to believe.

The movie succeeds at a marvelous level once the rebellious twin gets a hold of the book and begins to unravel the secret world, and for about 85% of the film I can feel comfortable in calling it a classic of the genre. It took me some time to fully become engulfed in the feeling of what was trying to be accomplished, but once it hits the mark it’s going for, which doesn’t take too long, remarkable things happen and they don’t stop until the credits roll. There is some outstanding voice casting in this movie that exceed anything else done in the genre to this point, in my opinion. The variety is ridiculously perfect, with Seth Rogen playing the part of clumsy Hogsqueal, who helps them in their fight to hold off the villain who plans to steal all of Spiderwick’s secrets. The villain is cast perfectly by the weathered and raspy Nick Nolte, who is so subtly devious that it can be eerie to a person of any age. This is a film that will surprise you beyond all expectations, and especially for someone who has never read the books for which it is based on. It’s one of the best films to be released in this early year so far, and oh-so-close to a classic of its kind.

* * * 1/2
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