THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES is that rare film that speaks to the adult in kid, and the kid in the adult with equal eloquence. Based on the series of novels by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. The hero, 12-year-old Jared (Freddie Highmore) is plagued with a bad attitude because of his parent’s divorce and subsequent move to the country with his mother (Mary-Louise Parker), older sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twin brother, Simon (also Freddie Highmore), who is as unlike in temperament from Simon as he is alike in appearance. Jared is also plagued with what he discovers in the rundown house that once belonged to their eccentric cousin, Lucinda (Joan Plowright), who has never been quite right in the head since the mysterious disappearance of her father, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) a half-century or so before. Amid the piles of canned tomato sauce and seemingly endless jars of honey and peanut butter, Jared discovers magical creatures, not all of them friendly. He also discovers the journal that Arthur was working one when he disappeared, the one that catalogues the brownies, the goblins, and other assorted creatures in one comprehensive work, the one with a dire warning NOT to read it.
There is no commentary track, but there are so many extras that delve into different aspects of making the film that it’s no loss. Particularly since there is the fieldbook option, which alerts the viewer that an entry exists for the creature now appearing on screen and by clicking on the fieldbook icon, the film pauses while the pertinent material appears on screen. There are also the usual interesting tidbits, from designing the sets, including how many houses it takes to make a film like this, and the considerations involved in making said house look both spooky and erudite. The enchantment of the books on which the film was based was enough to persuade rangers to allow a station of theirs to be knocked down to accommodate the production.
The danger in making-of features about CGI-heavy films is that there is the risk of killing some of the magic. And there is something less terrifying and more comical to see actors on set reacting to tracking marks, or even a cardboard cutout rather than a troll or a hobgoblin. The DVD covers that by indulging in the entirely charming conceit of having everyone involved pretend that the story is based on fact. The authors recount meeting the real children on which the story is based, and director Mark Waters even offers his own tips on staying on the right side of any magical creatures the viewer might encounter.
Arguably the best special effect in the film is Freddie Highmore playing twins who couldn’t be more different and by that I don’t mean the split screen techniques that allow Highmore to act opposite himself. I mean the way he as an actor becomes two entirely different people. It’s more than a matter of hair and wardrobe, and to see him transform from Jared to Simon loses none of its magic for being able to examine it so closely. The kid is seriously talented, while still being a real kid. As for Nick Nolte as the villain of the piece, it’s only slightly less interesting to appreciate how much mileage he gets out of just his voice and his eyes after seeing the amount of work getting all that monster make-up on entails. The usual cast and crew interviews are solid, but it’s Strathairn, who plays Arthur Spiderwick, the author of the field guide, who gets the most philosophical about the deeper meaning of it all.
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, like the books, are something to be revisited over and over again. As rich in meaning and wonder as it is in pratfall humor and warm earth tones, it’s magic.