The Spiderwick Chronicles, a new film starring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore in a double role, is, like Harry Potter and The Golden Compass, another children’s adventure fantasy based on popular books. Drawing from the first five novels in the Spiderwick series by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, the movie hopes that its faeries and goblins will work the same kind of magic on family audiences as the charms and spells of a certain boy wizard.
The movie starts with a breezy prologue in which we see fairy expert Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) dot and cross the final i’s and t’s on his life’s work, Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You.
Jump ahead eighty years. Following a split with her husband Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and her kids, Jared, his twin brother Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore) and Mallory (Sarah Bolger) are forced to leave New York and relocate to an isolated family estate once owned by their eccentric great, great uncle Arthur Spiderwick. “It has that old people smell,” says Simon. “It’s the house that time forgot,” adds Jared of the Addam’s Family-inspired mansion.
Jared, angry about the move, discovers a dumb waiter on the first morning in the house when he pokes a series of holes in the wall. He takes the lift up to a secret office—a wonderland of creepy crawlies—where he finds a large, dusty old book. Ignoring the warning not to open the tome he, like any curious young boy would, turns the pages of his Great Uncle’s scrapbook and unwittingly unleashes a Pandora’s Box of goblin fury.
He has resuscitated the goblins that live in the forest who are now desperate to get their hands on the book’s secrets. The Grace family will now have to battle dark forces—and one really unpleasant ogre voiced by Nick Nolte—to save their lives and preserve the sanctity of the book.
Shot in Montreal, The Spiderwick Chronicles does a good job of balancing the fantasy elements with the human drama, and even effectively mixes in a bit of comedy. Often in this kind of special effects driven film the cast plays second fiddle to the CGI. Luckily Freddie Highmore, in a double role and sporting an American accent is more than up to the task of distinguishing himself amid the animated characters. He hands in two nice performances and anchors the fantastic elements of the film in reality. Also listen for Vancouver’s Seth Rogan to voice a cowardly hobgoblin and look for Nick Nolte, who doesn’t need much make-up to convincingly play the evil ogre in human form.
The Spiderwick Chronicles may be a bit too intense for the five and under set, but should suit the rest of the family just fine until the next time Harry Potter comes to town.