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THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Sarah Bolger, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn
Director:  Mark Waters
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  June 24, 2008

“VENGEANCE OR DEATH!!…hopefully, vengeance…”


Film ***1/2

The Spiderwick Chronicles is the kind of family film I’ve been desiring for a while now.  It’s smart, entertaining, unafraid to push the boundaries a little bit as far as fear, and featuring great performances by a talented trio of kids.

Actually, make that a duo…the talented young Freddie Highmore plays both Jared Grace and his twin brother Simon, with a pair of performances that always completely renders each character and makes them distinct.  So much so, it’s easy to forget there’s only one young actor involved.  Add Sarah Bolger as older sister Mallory, and you’ve got potent youth acting instead of just cute kids smarming it up on film.

The Graces have moved from New York to their great-aunt Lucinda’s (the venerable Plowright) aging house, much to the dismay of Jared.  Their mom (Parker) is divorcing their dad, making for a rough transition for the family.

But there’s more to the house than meets the eye.  Decades earlier, their great-great uncle Arthur (Strathairn) discovered the secrets to a hidden world of fairies, goblins, and other creatures.  His obsession with them led him to write his findings down in a book…a diary that chronicles all knowledge about the hidden world.  It turned out to be a mistake.  A terrible ogre needs that knowledge to control both his world and ours, and Arthur mysteriously vanished one day.  Lucinda, who believed, was thought to be crazy and taken away.

But Jared discovers the passage to his uncle’s room, finds the book, and unknowingly awakens forces that are ready to align against the hapless family.  Many of the secret creatures are good, but Jared soon learns not all can be trusted.  He has to convince his family of the danger that awaits.

The first trick is learning how to see the hidden world.  The book helps, but a hobgoblin is also able to give the kids the gift of sight.  How, I’d rather not say.  But once their eyes are opened, and they learn of the terrifying evil hoping to possess the book, their only choice is to somehow find their aging aunt, their missing uncle, and learn how to defeat those that would use Arthur’s knowledge for dire purposes.

This is an enthralling family adventure, but parents should be warned that some of what plays out is genuinely frightening and could easily give smaller ones restless nights and bad dreams.  But older kids, as well as adults, will find this to be a supremely entertaining adventure, filled with intelligence, warmth, genuine emotion and even some humor.  I love family films that don’t assume their audiences are nitwits.  And The Spiderwick Chronicles does more than assume its viewers are intelligent…it counts on it.

The cast is first rate, with the always reliable Parker, Plowright and Strathairn in solid supporting roles.  But I credit Freddie Highmore, who is a superb young talent, for grounding the fantasy and keeping the audience invested for the long haul.  CGI and other terrific effects can make the fantastic seem possible, but it takes emotional solidarity to make it absolutely real.

Mark Waters has done well, having hits with Freaky Friday and Mean Girls.  Turning his attention to a family fantasy proves that he’s comfortable and capable in many genres.  The pacing of the film is solid throughout…it never gets restless, and it never lets the fantasy completely overtake the reality, but rather allows one to enhance the other.

The film is based on a series of books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, and I for one hope that Waters and company will be back for more.  This is the most promising family film I’ve seen in awhile, and I think there’s more fertile ground to be cultivated with these stories.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Martin Short and Seth Rogen provide some of the voices.

Video ****

This movie may have been crafted with high definition in mind, because it looks spectacular on Blu-ray.  The early scenes, which are mostly dark, show what the format is capable of, because you still get good detail without undue grain or murky interference.  And in brighter scenes, you get full hi-def glory, with eye popping colors and incredible sharpness and detail.  The flurry of sylphs is particularly impressive; instead of just a mass of motion, you can see them individually.  Incredible!

Audio ****

The Dolby TrueHD track is one of the most dynamic and expansive I’ve heard on Blu-ray.  There are moments of such power you may have to reach for your remote to compensate.  There’s plenty of action and fright that keep all channels fully employed.  James Horner’s music score is also striking and a definite plus!

Features ***1/2

The extras on this Blu-ray are plentiful, starting with an interactive Field Guide mode.  Access it, and during the movie, you can bring up Arthur Spiderwick’s field guide and learn more about what he learned and how it applies to the movie.

There are six featurettes which are entertaining and amusing, as Waters proceeds under the assumption that all the movie contains is actually true.  There are four deleted scenes, and some trailers and Nickelodeon TV spots.

Summary:

The Spiderwick Chronicles is spectacular fun for older kids and their families.  Mark Waters and a terrific cast have delivered a fanciful slice of fantasy that looks and sounds incredible on Blu-ray!

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