The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

Rating: ****
Review Date: 2/18/08
Director: Mark Waters
Special Effects: Industrial Light And Magic, Tippett Studios
Music: James Horner
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Martin Short

How many times do people ignore the "DO NOT OPEN THIS BOOK" warning? And every time, horrible, horrible things happen. Will we ever learn? Anyway, this time the dreaded book is a field guide to the world of fantastic creatures: elves, sprites, fairies, goblins, ogres, trolls, and all manner of supernatural beings that live beyond our perception. Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) spent his life assembling the book, and now eighty years later it is discovered by a young boy named Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore). He breaks the protective seal and starts reading it, which gets the attention of the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), a nasty creature who desperately wants its secrets. Naturally, his dysfunctional family doesn't believe him, until they're all forced to do battle against an army of goblins. Throw in some weepy family drama and morality issues to ground the story in reality and you've got yourself a complete mainstream "family film."

A well made film on all accounts, although the family drama seems a bit contrived and unnecessary. I prefer my fantasy films to be just that - fantasy. Fortunately, the kids are intelligent and treated in a mature fashion, and not dismissed with condescension - just disbelief. The visual effects are excellent, although I wasn't particularly enamored with the creature design. Mulgarath is pretty impressive, though. James Horner's musical score is epic and sweeping, recalling times long past. In fact, the whole film feels like a nostalgic blast from the past, and would have fit in perfectly with the fantasy films of the 1980's. Freddie Highmore (in dual roles) delivers strong and solid performances, although you spend more time dissecting his split screen scenes than actually enjoying them. Adorable Sarah Bolger is quite convincing as the older teenage sister, quietly struggling with her brothers, her mother, and her own adolescence. She also swings a mean sword. Unfortunately, she also suffers from at least one glaringly awful makeup continuity flaw, which I'm surprised made it past the editing room. Overall, I definitely recommend this film to anyone who appreciates fantasy action with a dark and intellectual edge.