The Spiderwick Chronicles

The Spiderwick Chronicles

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A creepy old house with a mysterious past. An elderly relative in a lunatic asylum. A book full of secrets man was not meant to know. This is the stuff of many a scary tale, but it's not all the three Grace children have to deal with. Their parents have split up and nobody has told young Jared why. He sulks and their mother shouts. She's trying to get the hang of a new job and keep the children from fighting with each other. In the house, things start to disappear, and Jared finds a secret room. Now their troubles are about to begin in earnest.

Based on the five popular children's books of the same name, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a rare delight, an immaculately made and utterly gripping fantasy which will thrill children and adults alike. Little ones may suffer nightmares but they'll beg to watch it again. Where the books were somewhat slight, the ever-reliable John Sayles has skillfully woven all five tales into one cracker of a story. Though its elements are familiar and its denoument something adults may have seen before, that's the way of fairy stories, and this is told with such aplomb that it never becomes a problem. It's one of the best children's films for years.

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What really makes this film something special is its atmosphere. There's a sense that viewers are experiencing not just one story but the whole world which lies behind it. This depth of vision is subtly put across without the need for heavy exposition. After the film ends, another five minutes of credit sequence takes the audience on a tour of some of the sights and sounds from the books which there wasn't room to fit into the main story. It's a visual delight, utterly enchanting, and its style, especially in the creepier scenes, accords well with Tony DiTerlizzi's much-loved illustrations. So absorbing is this vision that one can lose all awareness of the outside world and become lost in the film and drawn into its story.

The goblins here are routine stuff. Slightly comical but disturbingly vicious, they owe a debt to Labyrinth. But scenes where they try to drag off Jared's brother, or to break into the house, are full of real horror. The slightly ridiculous nature of the weapons to be used against them only makes them creepier in their absurdity. By contrast the non-aggressive but still dangerous sylph glide through scenes of dazzling beauty which hypnotise viewers as well as the children.

Of course, even the most exquisitely crafted film of this sort can be ruined by poor performances from the child actors, but here all is well on that score too. Freddie Highmore is particularly impressive as both of the Grace brothers, creating distinct personalities even though Simon, the quieter of the two, gets relatively little screen time.

Finally, a word about the music. James Horner knows how to score a fantasy film, and this is much more than the usual series of cheesy character motifs and sudden changes in pitch to indicate danger. It's a complex but gracefully understated work which interacts with the film beautifully, never dominating or distracting from the action.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is a film in which everything comes together exactly as it should. It will quickly become a favourite with children who believe in magic. If yours don't, take them anyway. They'll be believers before it's over - and so will you.

Reviewed on: 13 Mar 2008
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The Spiderwick Chronicles packshot
Moving to a creepy old house after their parents split up, three children encounter a dangerous but enchanting supernatural world.
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Director: Mark Waters

Writer: Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, John Sayles

Starring: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, Joan Plowright, Nick Nolte, David Strathairn

Year: 2008

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

Festivals:

Glasgow 2008

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