Why do so many children's movies have such poor plots and acting? Do the directors think the children won't notice and the parents won't care? The Spiderwick Chronicles is full of one-dimensional characters with a Swiss-cheese plot that entertains only to some degree.
As the movie's opening credits are playing we see Arthur Spiderwick investigating the magical creatures that live around his home in the middle of nowhere. Then he frantically seals his book, hides it and is fearful of something. Cut ahead 80 years to find the same large house, looking like a distant cousin of the one from Psycho, and a family car pulling up. Single mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) is struggling to move her three kids into this new home, recently inherited from gaga Aunt Lucy, locked away in the local sanitarium. Freddie Highmore plays two characters, twins. Jared Grace is the angry kid, using the silent treatment to communicate his dissatisfaction at the state of affairs -- the divorce and move. Simon Grace is the buttoned-down, logical brother, a clear foil to Jared. Throw in older-sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and the family is ready for some "fun."
When things start disappearing, Jared is blamed -- an easy target. Of course, this is a dysfunctional family, with every man for himself. At least at the start. But when Jared discovers a dumb waiter leading to a secret room, he finds Arthur Spiderwick's sealed book. On the cover is a note giving a clear warning not to open the book. But where would the movie go if Simon had found the book instead? No doubt, he would have left it unopened and gone on with life. But not Jared. He opens it unleasing a kind of sonic boom, letting every magical creature know that the book is once more found and open.
From here, the narrative goes in a straight-line, including goblins, hobgoblins, sylphs and an ogre. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the cgi creatures here simply do not work. The goblins look like frogs on steroids. They are not credible creatures. The wicked Mulgarath (Nick Nolte wasting his talent) can morph into a variety of shapes. As much as his main shape is scary, he does not look like a world-ender.
The story has too many holes and asks the viewer to ignore the questions that nag at the corner of the mind. Why does opening the book unleash the sonic boom? Why are there so few goblins? If Mulgarath is planning to destroy the world, he is not likely to do with his platoon of these toadies. It's as if the production company could not afford the cost of replicating the cgi monsters. Or maybe, too many would be too scary for smaller children. Regardless, the creatures are not sufficient to make the plot believable. And why would he start in the middle of nowhere? Indeed, why was Arthur the only person to see them? It does not make much sense. And then, on top of all this, the friendly creatures are not that likeable.
As the plot plods on, Jared convinces his siblings that there really are these fantastical things living in the woods with evil plans. Once convinced, these two rational siblings become followers to the emerging leadership of Jared. From angry, sullen kid to "warrior-leader" all in the space of a few minutes.
There are some moments of tension in Spiderwick, but they are few and far between. Jared and Mallory's race through the tunnels to escape to the local town is fair. But even here, the troll chasing them looks like a crocodile on drugs. It fights against the viewer's imagination -- this is not what a troll should look like. The final fight scene in the house is adequate, but by then the viewer is hoping and waiting for the end to come soon.
And the end is clumsy. Tacking on the "emotional character arc" Jared moves from warrior-leader to loving son. This is an unneccessary and contrived sentimental ending. To make matters worse, the very end offers a very weird book-end wrap-up to the opening, with the return of the sylphs and some serious time-warping. Why this was added is unknown. It does nothing really for the plot except try to tie up some loose ends that were better left undone. Sometimes Hollywood endings spoil rather than enhance the movie.
Spiderwick raises two main issues, neither very well. First there is the issue of breaking the rules. In two keys moments, Jared actively disobeys. First, when he sees the warning on the book, he blatantly ignores it. This is like our reaction to a "Keep off the grass" sign. Second, when warned not to take the book out of the protective circle, he disobeys and deceives, taking the book with him to see Aunt Lucy (and why he needed to do this is unclear; she did not have to see it to believe him). Ethically, it is wrong to break rules that are there for our protection. Lying and deceiving to get away with some disobedience is simply icing on the cake. But, this has been done better in Bee Movie, which took the concept of breaking rules to a broader limit in a funnier and funner manner.
Then, Spiderwick raises the notion of invisible creatures living in the world around us. Though there were barely a hundred of these, in our reality described in the Bible there are millions of invisible creatures living around us, and not just in the woods in nowhere-land. These creatures are referred to as demons (fallen angels) and angels. There is an invisible, spiritual reality. Yet, this has been communicated in a superior fashion in the classic movie, The Matrix.
Spiderwick sets out to be an entertaining kids' movie, and from a child's perspective it probably succeeds. My 10 year-old enjoyed watching this. Like a stormy weather forecast, I found it to be mostly dull with a few threatening periods.
Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs