How does a filmmaker weave a multi-volume book series into a cohesive, coherent film?
If your name is Peter Jackson and you possess a $300 million budget, the answer is simple. You don't. You recognize the wealth of material that would be left on the cutting room floor, and you turn that multi-volume series into multiple films.
If, however, your name is not Peter Jackson and you don't possess a $300 million budget or, for that matter, even the promise of ever working again then you commit yourself to the most significant and beloved plot points of the book series and build them film around them.
In a nutshell, the latter approach explains director Waters' ("Just Like Heaven," "Mean Girls") "The Spiderwick Chronicles," the latest entry into the ever growing genre of CGI-centered family films based upon a five-volume children's series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi.
While Black and DiTerlizzi's book series is a graphic intensive, large print collection, it is still a 500+ page series and, despite the rather basic plot, condensing Arthur Spiderwick's metaphysical world of ogres, fairies, goblins and such into an understandable and entertaining family film is no small task.
In the film, Helen Grace (Mary Louise Parker) has just divorced her husband Richard (Andrew McCarthy) and for financial reasons has moved herself and her three children, the subservient Simon (Freddie Highmore), angry Simon (Highmore, in a dual role) and the eldest, Mallory (Sarah Bolger, "In America"), into a huge estate left to her by Arthur Spiderwick's daughter, Lucinda (Joan Plowright, "Enchanted April") who is said to be at a sanitarium.
What is true in horror films is also typically true in family films, and that is that moving into an old, decrepit estate inevitably isn't all its cracked up to be. Within 24 hours, Jared has discovered that they are not alone in the house and, when he stumbles upon Spiderwick's "Chronicles," a field guide to the spiritual realm of living creatures, suddenly Jared, his family and all living creatures are in grave danger.
The problem is that, as Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, "Good Night, and Good Luck") learned, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" really shouldn't be read and possessing such powerful knowledge of the magical world is considered too much knowledge for one human being.
At first, Jared seems unphased that he has disregarded a written warning to not read the book. His first encounter with a magical creature is, Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a trusted confidante of Spiderwick's and longtime protector of the book. Rather quickly, however, bad things start happening to his siblings and, despite the continued disbelief of his mother, the three begin their adventure to determine what to do with the book and how to keep it out of the hands of the shape-shifting Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), the most powerful Ogre who desires this knowledge that will allow him to conquer the world.
Along the way, they will encounter hobgoblins and will be aided by the likes of such delightful characters as HogSqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen).
While the film is far more entertaining and emotionally resonant than New Line's attempt to create another "LOTR" style series with "Golden Compass," "The Spiderwick Chronicles" falls short of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and even the "Narnia" films. Much of this can undoubtedly be attributed to Waters and screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum simply having too much material to include in too little time and, even more disappointingly, altering the story's ending with a far too typical Hollywood-flavored resolution that isn't faithful to the series' conclusion.
Whereas "Golden Compass" got bogged down in trying to explain itself, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" takes only a few minutes before the action begins and seldom does the pace let up.
While the dual casting of Freddie Highmore seems unnecessary given the rather one-note development of the twin siblings, Highmore continues his streak of top-notch performances and even brings a rather spot-on American accident this time around. The only problem with Highmore's performance, which becomes more obvious as the film moves forward, is that the script's lack of cohesiveness and multiple plot jumps become obvious with an actor who is so readily able to emote freely. It was, at times, difficult to buy into Highmore's emotional depths largely due to a story that consistently left out chunks of the story that will be most bothersome to those familiar with the literary version of the story.
Mary Louise Parker performs nicely, especially in the film's latter half, as the mother who is trying to start over but hasn't a clue how to do so, while Sarah Bolger gives the most consistent performance despite occasionally not balancing well with Highmore's more emotional performance.
The voice work from Martin Short, Seth Rogen and Nick Nolte is all fine, though none particularly stand out from the non-stop CGI effects. In what amount to relatively minor roles, David Strathairn and Joan Plowright offer their usual strong performances as Arthur and Lucinda Spiderwick.
James Horner's original score, despite sounding remarkably familiar, accompanies the action nicely, while Caleb Deschanel's cinematography utilizes darkness quite nicely and keeps the action suspenseful without becoming too frightening for the film's target younger audience.
Somewhat surprisingly, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is rated PG and parents bringing young ones should be prepared for quite a few scenes involving ogres and goblins in fight scenes and attacking the three children in such a way that may potentially be frightening to smaller children.
While "The Spiderwick Chronicles" doesn't seem likely to end up a cinematic classic, it is an entertaining and family friendly film based upon the books that are beloved by many children. Filled with enough fantasy and action to delight children yet intelligent enough to maintain a hold on accompanying parents, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" garners a modest recommendation despite a touch of disappointment at the story left untold and warm and fuzzy ending that left me cold.