Review: The Spiderwick Chronicles

Another fantasy book series enters the cinematic adaptation competition. It loses to Potter, but certainly beats Narnia; coming in at a respectable place just behind The Golden Compass.

A mother on the verge of divorce takes her daughter and her twin sons (both played by Freddy Highmore) to live in the secluded old house owned by their great, great uncle Arthur Spiderwick. After uncovering Arthur’s detailed notes about magical creatures, the children find themselves in possession of dangerous knowledge about this fantastical world. Knowledge that some beasts would kill for…

The film’s major appeal is in the design of the magical creatures; based on illustrations from the book series. The slimy and twiggy beasts look like they could indeed be found hiding under a pile of dead leaves at the bottom of the garden. Ranging from goblins, to faeries, to boggarts and brownies; all have a realistic physiology which is quite unique to the Spiderwick world.

Unfortunately, the computer animation used to bring these creatures to life is hit and miss. Sometimes they look weightless, other times the lighting on them doesn’t match the environment around them. Too much fakery diminishes the appeal of the fantasy and remains a smudge which can’t be wiped away.

Average animation aside, the best use of computer trickery is in the way that Freddy Highmore is able to play both twins on screen at the same time. It is completely convincing. This is almost entirely due, however, to Highmore’s brilliant dual performance. While the more rebellious twin, Jared, has far more screen time, both he and Simon are completely believable characters (likeable too, thanks to Highmore) to the extent that most people would be easily fooled into thinking that real twin actors were playing the onscreen pair.

A dull broken-family sub-plot dampens the mood quite a bit, and the climax comes to a skidding halt. But there’s a certain appeal in the film’s fast pace and the sense of tension which is increasingly tightened as the story progresses. There are very few slow sections, and the film’s reasonably brief running time ensures that the entire adventure remains exciting throughout. The focus is quite intimate when compared to the overblown pomposity of Narnia or Potter, and this is what makes The Spiderwick Chronicles worth investigating.