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THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Sarah Bolger, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn
Voices: Seth Rogen, Martin Short
Director: Mark Waters
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 101 Minutes
Release Date: June 24, 2008

“What happens when Mulgarath gets the book?”

“I die. You die. We all die. Bye-bye.”

Film ***

While it’s true that The Spiderwick Chronicles couldn’t have been made without the monster success of the Harry Potter movies, this particular family adventure works for an entirely different reason. Though it’s based on a popular series of children’s books, and from what I can tell a faithful adaptation at that, it feels like a tremendous throwback to the countless kid-friendly movie adventures of the 1980s. More than anything, I was reminded of the first time I saw The Goonies in the theater.

Thus, the six year old who was marveled by that movie was able to resurface and enjoy the life out of this one. And there’s plenty within the film to appreciate deeply. The characters are quite memorable (rare in a kid’s movie), the story is well written, and the special effects are unquestionably a treat for the eyes and ears.

The story revolves around young Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore). He, along with his twin brother Simon (Highmore), sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and mom (Mary-Louise Parker) are in the middle of moving from the New York City to a much more quiet setting in the form of the house belonging their great aunt. The mom is also in the middle of a divorce, though Jared has faith about his dad coming back to set things right.

But as Jared and his siblings soon discover, this house is not quite what it appears to be. Jared stumbles across a book written a long time ago by their great-great uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). It’s a diary that details a hidden world inhabited by goblins, fairies and various creature types…a world that is about to come face to face with ours.

Before long, Jared comes across many different creatures and goblins, some good and others quite nasty. On the good side, he meets the friendly Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) and Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen). However, there’s the evil shape-shifting Mulgrath (voiced by Nick Nolte), who wants possession of the book at any cost.

In the tradition of the best types of cinematic fantasies, The Spiderwick Chronicles creates an extraordinary world, which the viewer can’t help but be engulfed in. The three young siblings are plunged into this world, along with us, and the level of simultaneous discovery is amazing. Only they are permitted to see what the creatures look like, through a certain device, and though it may not seem too original in concept, it still works tremendously well.

Freddie Highmore, who’s been on quite a roll lately, does quite a remarkable job in the dual role of twin brothers Jared and Simon. I was really amazed by how different Highmore was able to look in both characters, without the movie trying to spell out the fact that the same actor is in both roles. And I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Sarah Bolger, who I hadn’t seen since she played young Christy in In America. Not to sound like a clichéd grandparent, but my has she grown in such little time. And she remains a most charismatic performer, delivering many of the film’s best lines.

The special effects work is some of the best that Industrial Light and Magic has delivered to any movie. When a creature inhabits a scene of the film, you simply can’t help but be marveled by what you are seeing. Even though the movie got an early release to theaters this year, I seriously think this should get recognized at next year’s Oscars for the amazing effects work.

To top it all off, director Mark Waters has really revealed himself as a top-notch fantasy movie director. If you were to tell me that a movie of this caliber was going to be helmed by the director of two popular teen-based comedies, I’d have serious doubts. But life is full of surprises, and Waters has proven himself as visionary for this genre.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is about as good a piece of family entertainment as you ask for. I would, however, say prep your kids for some of the slightly scary imagery that comes in during the climax. But all in all, this is an amazing ride of a movie that people of all ages will be able to enjoy.

Video ****

Paramount has delivered one fantastic looking picture with this release. The anamorphic picture is nothing but visual amazement from beginning to end, and the color appearance adds a great deal to the presentation. The visual effects look twice as stunning as a result. Quite a phenomenal piece of DVD video.

Audio ****

Here’s one 5.1 mix that truly delivers! It’s hard not to lose with a movie in this sort of genre, as far as sound quality is concerned, and this truly delivers in the areas you expect it to. Whether it’s the astounding effects sequences, moments of intense action, or the terrific score provided by James Horner, every sound element is brought to amazing life in this presentation.

Features ***1/2

This 2-Disc release from Paramount, titled the 2-Disc Field Guide Edition, delivers quite a neat little world of extras. For starters, the packaging is terrific and very fitting for the movie. Disc One includes two featurettes, titled “Spiderwick: It's All True!”, “It's A Spiderwick World” and though we are not offered a commentary track, the interactive “Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide” is a grand substitute, as it features pages from the book popping up during sequences where pages are linked.

Disc Two has many more featurettes, including “Spiderwick: Meet the Clan, “Making Spiderwick”, “The Magic of Spiderwick!” and “A Final Word of Advice”. Lastly, we have four Deleted Scenes, Theatrical Trailers and TV spots.

Summary:

The Spiderwick Chronicles really took me by surprise in many ways. If you long for the days of 80s style fantasy adventures, but with amazing modern effects, then this is definite must see. And for families, you couldn’t ask for anything better at the moment!

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