For years the blending of the mundane contemporary world with a magical world of mystery has been dominated by the Harry Potter books, movies, underoos, and breakfast cereal. What about those of us who weren’t born to be wizards, but instead are stuck in the ordinary world? The Spiderwick Chronicles shows that we too can enjoy a magical, extraordinary world around us, provided we know where to look.
The Spiderwick Chronicles takes its name from Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), a professor who discovers that the magical world of fairies, trolls, and goblins surrounds us. As mere humans, we just don’t know how to see them. As he unlocks the secrets of that world and records them in a “field guide to the supernatural,” he finds himself in danger when a fierce shapeshifting ogre named Mulgrath (Nick Nolte) tries to get a hold of the field guide so he can abuse the knowledge gathered there to reign supreme over all the creatures of the supernatural world.
Fast forward quite a few years. Arthur Spiderwick has disappeared and his daughter, Lucinda, has been institutionalized for crazy behavior. The Grace family, the only living relatives to the Spiderwicks, is in need of a place to restart their life, so they move into Spiderwick’s home. It isn’t long before troublemaker Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore) discovers Arthur Spiderwick’s book and begins to unlock the secrets of the supernatural and reawakens Mulgrath. Convincing his sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twin brother Simon (also played by Highmore) that their lives are in jeopardy is difficult enough, but as Mulgrath increases his efforts to get Spiderwick’s field guide, the Grace family finds themselves joined by some strange allies, including a brownie and a hobgoblin, to protect the book, the house, and their own lives.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Spiderwick Chronicles is that it has a cast that you would never imagine for a light-hearted fantasy picture like this. By name, David Strathairn seems oddly out of place in a picture like this, although he brings a respectable pedigree to the story. Comedic actors Seth Rogen and Martin Short provide voices for the Grace family’s allies in the battle against Mulgrath, but their voices are hardly recognizable unless you know who you’re listening to. The weakest of the established names is Mary-Louise Parker (from Showtime’s Weeds). I adore Parker usually, but here she seems like she came over from the set of her Showtime series and forgot to exhale along the way, looking at everything with a wide-eyed, and yet unsurprised, sense of wonder.
And then there’s Freddie Highmore. The young actor’s best work has been done in more serious dramas, like August Rush or Finding Neverland. While Spiderwick may be a bit lighter, Highmore is challenged with playing an American accent as well as having to play dual characters, each with a distinctly different personality. While Highmore’s vocal pattern may seem forced and unnatural at times - especially when holding conversations with another character played by himself - the actor does succeed in creating two separate characters and does a pretty good job of selling the extraordinary world around him.
Visually, the movie does a pretty convincing job of meshing the supernatural with the ordinary. Some of the visual effects are weaker than others, relying a little too heavily on CG creatures, but the movie easily holds its own against other movies of its type, namely the Harry Potter flicks. Since the boy wizard’s adventures are getting darker and more mature, The Spiderwick Chronicles provides a nice counterbalance with a lighter fantasy adventure the whole family can enjoy.
Looking at the DVD for The Spiderwick Chronicles, it almost seems like two different parties were involved, and they had separate agendas when making the movie. For example, a lot of the bonus material explains how the visual effects were created or where the story came from, but then several of the extras build on the idea that everything in the movie is real. Considering how many parents help their kids make it through scary moments (like the appearance of Mulgrath) by explaining that it’s not real, this DVD might not be the best thing for children to watch until their a little older. That’s right - we have a PG movie, but a DVD that might be best rated PG-10 or something.
The transfer of the movie looks really good and I wish I had a Blu-ray player to check out the higher definition transfer of the flick because I’m sure it’s gorgeous. The differences between bonus material isn’t substantial enough to shell out for the higher version in my mind though, especially if you aren’t already equipped to watch it.
On DVD, the movie is available in a single disc and two disc “field guide” edition. The first couple of extras are shared by both versions, but you do get more on the second disc if you pick up the “field guide” edition. You also get a cool package with a slipcase that resembles the front of Arthur Spiderwick’s field guide, including a Velcro wax seal that holds the slipcase on. I’m typically against slipcases, but this one is pretty cool.
The bonus menu starts out with “Spiderwick: It’s All True!” which should have been an introduction to the movie. It features director Mark Waters looking creepy and trying to explain everything kids need to watch the movie, because everything in the movie is real. Actually, maybe this shouldn’t serve as an intro for the film, since it spoils a lot of the mystery uncovered through the story. Other than trying to convince kids the movie is true, this doesn’t serve much of a purpose, other than making me feel a bit creeped out by Waters.
The concept of the story being true is immediately nullified by the next featurette, It’s a Spiderwick World!, which is kind of a general look at the movie that was probably featured on Nickelodeon to help advertise the movie. They make it clear in the featurette where the story idea came from, however, and introduce the authors of the original novels, who talk about creating the books and their adaptation to the film.
Finally on the first disc (or the single disc edition if that’s the version you pick up) is “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide.” The field guide offers text and image excerpts from the book in the movie, giving details on each of the creatures you see in the movie. It also allows you to jump to the scene in the movie where the creature appears. A second option allows you to watch the movie with the field guide turned on, and when a creature appears on screen you can branch out of the movie into the appropriate field guide entry. I actually think this adds quite a bit of fun for kids watching the movie, but it seems odd that it’s available on both movies, despite one version being titled the “field guide edition.”
So what do you get on the second disc if you go for the bigger version? Three additional featurettes, all of which focus on one specific area of the movie and are pretty typical DVD contents. “Spiderwick: Meet the Clan” introduces the characters and cast members. The biggest note of interest in this one is that Spiderwick was intended to be an American entry into the fantasy story (which, as the director and producers point out, is typically British), yet the kids are from England and Ireland. “Making Spiderwick” looks at the interior and exterior sets of the movie. Finally, “The Magic of Spiderwick” is more focused on the special effects and creating the different creatures of the supernatural world.
The two disc edition also includes a couple of deleted scenes, mostly just extended versions of scenes that appear in the movie, but nothing memorable. There’s also a gallery of advertisements for the movie, including theatrical trailers and commercials that appeared on Nickelodeon. Lastly, director Mark Waters reappears for “A Final Word of Advice…” to remind everyone that, despite seeing how the movie was made, the fantastical world really does exist and surrounds us all the time. Again, it just makes the DVD look like it was planned out by two different parties: one that wanted to maintain the illusion of Spiderwick’s world, and one that wanted to create a standard DVD.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy picture that is bound to give Harry Potter a run for his money. It’s a shame the filmmakers decided to cram all of the Spiderwick novels into one film, because they could have had a potential franchise here. Enjoy the movie and the DVD’s field guide, but the DVD’s bonus material offers nothing else extraordinary.