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The Spiderwick Chronicles

Well look at that! English actor Freddie Highmore turns sweet 16 today on Valentine's Day and what is he doing to celebrate? He's got a new film coming out called The Spiderwick Chronicles! Not every 16 year-old can claim that! Pretty cool, huh?

I guess I celebrated early with him by seeing a screening the other night of this film. It's based on Holly Black and Tony Diterlizzi's bestselling children's book series of the same name. I never read them and probably never will but I did enjoy the movie plenty. I felt like a lil kid again watching magical movies like The Neverending Story or Labyrinth. It was a welcome break from the moody, serious fare that I've taken in recently. Although, the story has it's share of thrills, humor, slime and wonder, it's no lightweight.

The story opens up with a frantic man holed up in a cob-webbed attic of a large house in the surrounded by a howling forest. He's fumbling through this large old book full of what appears to be his own writings of instructions and maps as well as drawings of creatures and fairies. It appears he's in what looks to be a study full of shelves, books, desks, creepy-crawlie things in jars and papers with pinned butterflies. He sits in his chair reasonably spooked by the wild sound in the distance as he closes his book with a wax seal, obviously determined that no one opens it again as he wraps it up and locks it in a chest.

Eighty years later, the large house is still there and we just know that book will be opened by someone in the SUV that's pulling up the drive. Soon enough, the Grace family is introduced and we see that the film will revolve around the three children. There's Jared and his twin brother, Simon (both played by Highmore), their older teen sister, Mallory (the wonderful Sarah Bolger) and their recently separated mother, Helen (Mary Louise Parker) all of them are starting anew here after moving from New York. Strange things start to occur and at first Jared gets the blame as he's the one who usually gets into the most trouble. He insists what he hears crawling in the walls is not his imagination nor his own doing but no one believes him.

Jared is that misunderstood and often unappreciated child often seen stuck in a family on the verge of breaking. He blames his mother for his parents' failing marriage and wants to move in with his dad. His frustration though is derailed by whatever is stirring in the house and once he follows the curious trail up into that old attic, we know something will be found.

Jared finds a key that opens a certain trunk and a book written by his great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). The book is Spiderwick's "Field Guide to the Fantasy World" and it is indeed the book that was desperately locked away eighty years ago. Well, we know how curious young boys can be, especially ones that are short-tempered and adventurous. Does he take heed of the note attached to the book warning anyone not to open the book? Of course not, instead Jared finds that the book is crammed with all sorts of information about faeries, brownies, boggarts, goblins, trolls, and a big ogre named Mulgarath.

Little does Jared know that after he broke the seal on that book, it's existence is made known to all those magical beings in the forest surrounding the house. The one who will do anything to get his claws on it is Mulgarath (played with Nick Nolte looking like he did in that DUI pic) and we don't even really need to know why because he is the baddie who can take on all shapes and sizes.

All we're told is that if the book falls into his possession all that exists is doomed. That's reason enough to keep the book safe. Common sense right? If you wanna live keep the book away from anybody. But then again it is in the hands if a curious young boy who has no clue that cuz scent of the book is in the air and Mulgarath's goblins are in hot pursuit.

Jared doesn't find out all this just by reading the book. The keeper of the book turns out to be a brownie named Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short). No, not a chocolicious treat but a fat lil rodent-looking creature who was pals with Spiderwick back in the day. He tells Jared as long as the book stays with them in the protective circle around the house that Spiderwick conjured up, they'll be safe. But children don't stay within a magical protective circle for long and pretty soon all mayhem breaks loose with the children running from trolls and goblins while unsuccessfully trying to keep the book in one piece.

The children aren't alone in their desperate attempt to keep the book intact and the,selves alive. They get some assistance from Hogsqueal (hilariously voiced by Seth Rogen), a "hog-goblin" wanting Mulgarath dead killing his family who gets distracting by trying to eat birds. They also seek the help of the house's previous inhabitant, their poor Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright) who grew up without her father (yes, Spiderwick) due to his obsession with all things magical. Now she's living in the local looney home on account of her talk of goblins and ogres. It probably didn't help that she had piles of salt on the window sills and a stockpile of honey, oatmeal and tomato sauce. Yeah. But once she realizes what Jared has done, she tells him there's only one thing he can do and that's find her father, who she believes is still alive in some fairy land and have him destroy the book.

As I mentioned, I haven't read the book and was unaware of what exactly there about before I saw this film. While I feel it was well-written, I do wonder where the screenwriters pulled a lame subplot of two dead-beat fathers from. I know it's my own personal gripe, but I didn't like seeing Jared heartbroken when his sister had to break it to him that his father (a brief cameo by Andrew McCarthy) has left the family form some chick in the city. I also didn't like seeing Spiderwick unintentionally spend all his life consumed by his mythical world while his daughter grew old without him around for eighty-something years. I know all families have their dysfunction but the film didn't seem to show any men in a good light. But that's really my only problem with a film that delivers some solid fantasy entertainment.

Veteran designer Phil Tippett and ILM do an amazing job on all the CGI and creature effects. None of it really felt like the actors were working with effects and that's kinda rare nowadays. I was kinda surprised at the PG rating of the film. Parents might wanna gauge whether or not their child can handle some of these scares but then again if they are already reading these books then they might be prepared for what's creeping around the corner.

Although I knew he was a talented actor, I was still surprised by Highmore's work here. I didn't even know till the end credits that he played both brothers. Both brothers personalities were evidently different which must of made it more attractive for Highmore. In fact, the entire cast did an excellent job with the material they were given, adding enough subtle characterization to come through. It's easy to expect some overacting in this kind of story but I really didn't see any here.

It seems director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls) has made a fun movie that doesn't condescend the viewer or over-complicate the story. There are so many series of children's books currently being adapted that it might as well become it's own film genre. I didn't plan on seeing this one at all but I'm glad I landed some screening passes and was able to experience a movie that served a mixture of humor, slimy thrills and excitement.

It'd be great if this film would serve as a warning for children not to open books that have notes warning not to do so but I doubt they will glean that. They will likely leave the theatre satisfied with a thrilling fantasy that made them jump, laugh and maybe even shed a tear. In fact, kids of all ages can kick back and enjoy a rare experience at the movies....fun!

David J. Fowlie

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