Thursday, March 13, 2008

'The Spiderwick Chronicles' are a diverting journey

The last couple of months have been oddly lacking in family-friendly fare, so it is no surprise that “The Spiderwick Chronicles” has become a hit. When you’re starved for nourishment even the blandest dish can seem like a rare delicacy.

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” is the latest book-to-screen fantasy adaptation to fill the gap while audiences wait for the next “Harry Potter” or “Narnia” film, and it is a well produced but unremarkable film. It has all the elements in place, but is held back by a sense of déjà vu.

It may seem as if I detested “Spiderwick,” but I am more disappointed that this material isn’t more inventive. The film starts with an intriguing premise, but doesn't take it far enough. There is an invisible world of fantastical creatures that exists parallel to ours. Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, “Good Night, and Good Luck”) has researched and extensively documented this world and placed it all in one book. This proves dangerous because if an ogre named Mulgarath gets a hold of the book he could rule both realms. Spiderwick seals the book and puts a protective spell on it and his home. Eighty years later one of his relatives breaks the spell and brings on the wrath of Mulgarath and his army of toad-like trolls.

The film’s protagonists, a trio of adolescent siblings, are archetypes given a couple traits to play rather than fully formed people. Jared (Freddie Highmore, “Finding Neverland,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) is the sullen, rebellious one, who ultimately becomes the leader of the pack. His twin brother Simon (Highmore again) is a timid walking encyclopedia, and Mallory (Sarah Bolger) is the bossy older sister who likes to fence. The dynamic is established early on and never develops.

There are plot developments that any discerning film-goer will be able to see coming. Instead of eliciting surprise or creating a touching moment, all they do is induce groans. Younger viewers who don’t have a lifetime of movies under their belt won’t know the wiser, but for adults it may be frustrating that screenwriters David Berenbaum (“Elf”) and Karey Kirkpatrick (“Chicken Run”) relied on the obvious instead of putting a different spin on the tried and true. Berenbaum and Kirkpatrick have shown in the past that they know how to make formulas seem fresh, which makes "Spiderwick" all the more disappointing.

For all my complaining, there is a lot to like about “Spiderwick.” The movie has some good visuals and isolated moments of magic and wonderment, as when a flower bed transforms into a group of fairies. Director Mark Waters (“Mean Girls”) creates a nice atmosphere and keeps the film well paced. The final confrontation with the trolls, though rushed, recalls the dark tongue-in-cheek humor of “Gremlins.”

There is some nice comic relief supplied by a couple creatures named Timbletack (voiced by Martin Short) and Hogsequel (voiced by Seth Rogen of “Knocked Up” and “Superbad”). Timbletack is sweet and helpful unless he’s angered, and then he turns into a little green demon. Luckily, he’s easily appeased by honey. Hogsequel is a pig-like creature who wants to help but is easily distracted by his favorite food: birds.

These characters are well voice by Short and Rogen and are given dialogue that is funny and has some spark. It is with these characters that the film finds some life of its own and hints at a greater film that lies just below the surface.

The cast is strong and makes the material seem weightier than it is. Strathairn makes Arthur Spiderwick a dignified, good-hearted figure and, although, he has limited screen time he makes a lasting impression. Joan Plowright (“Dennis the Menace”), as the aunt of the film’s young heroes, also has little screen time but is a warm, welcomed figure late in the film. This is probably Highmore's last “cute-kid” part, but he plays his duel role well.

Nick Nolte gets one scene to play as Mulgarath, and he plays it for all it is worth. He is more frightening in a few minutes than all the film’s computer-generated ghoulies combined. Unfortunately, Mulgarath spends the rest of the film as just another special effect.

As far as family entertainment goes, you can do far worse than “Spiderwick.” There are some very solid laughs and the overall experience is a pleasant, if overly familiar, one. It makes for a distracting enough afternoon for adults and should keep kids at bay for 90 minutes.

No comments: