Don’t let Nickelodeon’s boasting of production rights fool you – Director Mark Waters’ “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is the sort of fantasy-adventure that will entertain all age ranges; like a modern day “Jumanji,” following a fantasy come to life formula.
Like “Jumanji,” Spiderwick follows an almost identical theme-not a bad blueprint to borrow from, but the similarities are noted. Based on a series of novels of the same name, the protagonist Arthur Spiderwick creates a field guide to the magical world of fairies. His life becomes consumed by the glittery, surreal world around him, and a generation later, his great-grand nephew, Jared Grace, finds this guide. Suddenly, Jared and his family are thrust into a world where fantasy and reality collide, as the knowledge of the fairy field guide is coveted by evil goblins, trolls and ogres.
Is the plot predictable? Maybe. More importantly, it is a satisfying exercise in storytelling. This is made possible due to the live action and CGI-rendered cast of characters.The CGI components of the cast, ranging from the gnome-like “brownie” to the intimidating “mole troll,” are all infused with vibrancy and personality. The computer animation never feels overdone or out of place, and the voice acting is on-point. The creatures sound how they look, ranging from solemn spoken words to guttural, frothy growls.
Most notable in this respect is the film’s primary villain, the shape-shifting ogre, “Mulgarath.” The animation of the monster changing shape from one beast to another is smooth. Meanwhile, Nick Nolte (also seen in a brief cameo as Mulgarath’s human form) voices the character as if he has experience in sounding like a brutish ogre- Dreamworks “Shrek” is a sissy by comparison.
Martin Short also voices a convincing brownie as the bipolar “Thimbletack.” Thimbletack plays an important role as the first creature to reveal himself to the humans in the movie. His arrival officially marks where the movie picks up the pace. Thimbletack has a humorous addiction to honey, and will shape-shift into a bulbous, angry little elf when he is not given an answer or situation he likes. The Grace family quickly learns to pacify his erratic mood swings by handing him a squeeze-bear of honey, which he drinks like water.
Another intriguing character is Hogsqueal, a mischievous hobgoblin voiced by Seth Rogen of this summer’s “Knocked Up”. Hogsqueal, like Thimbletack, becomes an ally in the Grace Family’s quest to defeat the ogres. His bilious and rambunctious presence functions well amongst the darker characters, like Mulgarath.
As far as the human cast is portrayed, most every role is performed well enough. Sarah Bolger, who plays Mallory, the bossy older sister of Jared, is bound to add to her fan base in her most mainstream work to date.
This brings us to Freddie Highmore, who you’ll recognize from “The Golden Compass” and the 2005 remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Highmore, who is indeed one boy, plays both lead roles of twin brothers Jared and Simon Grace. Highmore does a fine job, sometimes carrying entire scenes essentially all by himself (accompanied only by his digitally added twin self, and the computer animated creatures cataloged in the fairy field guide).
The movie’s most distracting scenes, and probably its biggest weakness, are the scenes where Jared and Simon converse-where Highmore is talking to himself between takes. You can sometimes tell he is talking to no one, and it becomes apparent that he is acting and exchanging dialogue with himself. There is just something missing from his delivery in those exchanges, and his acting is not convincing in these scenes.
However, this is forgivable. Highmore plays both his roles just fine when there are other characters present to work off of, or when Jared and Simon are simply removed from each other. The overall presentation of the movie is never really tarnished, because it is quite simply a well-conceived fantasy adventure and executed accordingly. All ages will enjoy settling into a mystical world of fairies, trolls and ogres, and the realistic CGI makes you wish these whimsical characters were actually real. You’ll especially agree if you walk into Spiderwick expecting something made “just for kids”??-count on being pleasantly surprised.
In the end, The Spiderwick Chronicles pays enough attention to the details that make a simple story great -entertaining to the child in us all.