THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES is that perfect nexus of childlike wonder and the terrors of the id. In other words, the perfect fairy tale that is about much more than the magical creatures, some of whom are cute, some of whom are anything but, and some of whom can be both, though rarely at the same time. In this case, the “more than” is about paternal separation, and the different ways in which children handle same, some of which is cute, some of which is scary, and some of which can be both, though rarely at the same time.
The first separation is that of Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) from his family 80 years ago. A man obsessed with the fantastical realm that he had taken a lifetime of research to see and study, neglecting his family in the process. Alas, as happens when dabbling where no scientist has gone before, Dr. Frankenstein comes to mind, the unexpected happens. In this case, it was a wind that sounded very much like a growl as it descended on Spiderwick’s Victorian mansion, the one covered in architectural gingerbread, in the middle of a forest. He disappeared without a trace, leaving only the eponymous manuscript and a heartbroken daughter.
The second separation, a divorce, is more conventional, but no less tragic for all concerned. It’s also the reason that the three Grace children, Jared, Simon, (both played by Freddie Highmore) and Mallory (Sarah Bolger) arrive at the Spiderwick mansion. Their mother (Mary-Louise Parker) inherited it from her Aunt Lucinda, Spiderwick’s daughter, when the now elderly lady was taken to the asylum. It wasn’t so much Lucinda’s obsessive hoarding of oatmeal, tomato sauce, and honey that got her sent away, as it was claiming that her father had been kidnapped by fairies all those years ago.
While Mallory is supportive as her mother struggles to make a new life, and Simon is at least not doing anything to make it tougher, Jared is not going quietly from life in New York City to life in the country. He may not be speaking to his mother, but it’s a thunderous silence that bespeaks anger issues that run deep and potentially dangerous in the boy. Their first night in the new house is fraught with discovery, from the unseen thing that scuttles around, the investigation into which that leads Jared to a secret room and the book Spiderwick left behind that warns the would-be reader not to. Naturally, it’s irresistible. And not unsurprisingly, it’s guarded by one of the magical creatures detailed within its pages, which detail all that he has discovered about the unseen realm, including how to see it. Brownies with their own anger issues, goblins that look like demon toads and act worse, and an ogre with a plan for world domination that hinges on the chronicles quickly become an all to real presence if Jared’s world. He barely has time to adjust to the new world around him, while explaining to his family that the pranks they are experiencing are not the result of his acting out, before he becomes embroiled in a power struggle that began 80 years before and that might just be up to him to end.
Highmore is so good in the dual role, troubled Jared and pacifist Simon, that the two seem to have more of a strong family resemblance than identical looks. It he didn’t have that distinctive triangular jaw, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think that it was two different kids. Bolger as their sword-wielding older sister (she’s a fencing champion), is suitably tough, snide until her eyes are opened, as it were, whereupon she becomes a warrior extraordinaire. It’s Parker, though, who is the quiet scene stealer. She turns in a performance that is wonderfully subtle while also being enormously heart-breaking. It’s the way she says “We’re not doing this” with a tinge of both desperation and ineffable sadness as her kids squabble the same squabble that they had for years, only this time, she’s just not emotionally able to deal with it.
It’s a performance that is more than suitable for a film that is at its core dealing with the darkest of places, but even the juxtaposition, secrets kept from kids for their own good, secrets of the fantastical world that keep themselves from being seen, doesn’t prevent it from being a whiz-bang adventure. But the unfolding is all about dazzle, adventure, and fun. Not that all the magic is glamorous in the Hollywood sense, the gift of seeing the creatures against their will is bestowed with the spittle of a hobgoblin. And not that the evil beings are anything less than unmitigated malevolence. Just looking at one of the goblins is enough of a blow to the eyes to give an idea of the dangers of actual physical contact. And when that happens, the unwholesome way the scratches left in the flesh bubble as they bleed speaks volumes about what they monsters are made of. The master, the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte in semi-human form) is even worse. A shape-shifter of the most insidious kind with a nature that is as relentless as it is ruthless, his true form is all horns, scales, huge size and as close to pure evil as this plane of existence can handle.
It’s a toss-up which kids might find more troubling in THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES, the disruption and deceit of divorce, or the monsters that are trying to kill the kids, and everyone else for that matter, with a startling reality that belies their mythical condition. For those made of stern stuff, kids and adult alike, it’s a dark but enthralling tale, translated to the screen with sensitive intelligence, that works on many levels, all of them enchanting.