If I was a child, say around the age of 13, I would have absolutely without hindrance loved every second of The Spiderwick Chronicles. Some reviews have labeled it as scary and frightening, but what it really is, is exhilarating. I recalled my first experience watching Gremlins at the movie theatre. It was 1984, I was 6. I was frightened but enthralled. Since then films of fantasy and adventure have blazed a trail into my memory banks, from The Never Ending Story to The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. This means that very little is surprising anymore in the ways of children’s fantasy, or any fantasy at all, and most of it isn’t very inspired.
The Spiderwick Chronicles doesn’t tread upon new water, but it does tread upon old water with wit, thrills and surprising emotional depth. And I realized about half way through if you put aside the fact that you’ve seen much of it before and view it as if it’s your first fantasy movie ever it’s a story that’s easily enjoyed and that ends up finding some magic all of it’s own. Cynics beware, there’s no room for you at this movie.
The story is a cinch. Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore), a young man who has had some anger issues, is being forced to move away from the city where his family, sans father, hopes to start fresh. Their new residence is a palatial old English style home, the kind you’ve seen in many a movie that exists in the middle of nowhere for the only reason that it’s the perfect location for magical things to occur without too many people noticing.
In a hidden attic Jared uncovers a sealed book written by his great, Great Uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn.) The first thing he does is unseal it which unlooses a horde of angry goblins, a giant shape-shifting ogre and many other wondrous and treacherous creatures upon their peaceful property. It’s Jared’s job to protect the book from Mulgurath the ogre, in order to do that he has to convince his sister Mallory, brother Simon and mother Helen that he isn’t crazy.
The first thing done correctly by Director Mark Waters (The House of Yes, Mean Girls) is that he doesn’t force it to be an epic. It unfolds in a 24 hour period, most of the action taking place around the house and in a single afternoon (the three unities!) And while the story itself is fantastical the major events that occur are between family members dealing with the fracturing that has occurred between them.
A fracturing that in it’s worst moments is mostly talked about. It’s like witnessing the trails of a 4th of July sparkler. This is where the film plays it safe with the hero Jared by not showing him in true destructive form, so we don’t get to see him completely change. In fact its flip flopped, everything we see Jared do we understand and relate to. He’s talking sense when he points out how strange it is that their crazy aunt put salt on all of the window sills. He’s blamed for everything that has no explanation and when one of the family members walks in on him poking holes in the wall they think he’s up to his old tricks.
What we end up witnessing then is a young man who comes to realize that responsibility is a far more difficult thing to handle than he thought. One of the rules of war is to be empathetic to your enemy. I think one of the rules of human relationships in general is to learn empathy, to be able to see the world through the eyes of someone else. In this story through the eyes of an adult for the first time, and in turn for an adult to see through the eyes of their children. It’s that final step in leaving behind childhood and that final step in understanding those around you. That maybe there’s a reason for someone making a decision and anger before understanding isn’t the best way to deal with the people around you. The more I write about this the more I realize that this is probably a necessary tale for adults as well.
To hold your anger, and to listen and understand before reacting and pointing the finger. Your son or daughter may very well be saving you from something far scarier than Goblins and Ogres. They may be saving you from a life that’s emotionally distant as the subplot between Spiderwick and his daughter points us towards.
Beside two moments in the film, one in which the Mother has to apologize for not believing the house was surrounded by invisible Goblins is a little silly (is that really something you would have to apologize for?) and one in which the two brothers share a look at a window sill full of salt and they look like they are staring through each other, this movie is definitely worth taking in. Especially since the ending made me laugh really hard…in a good way.