The Spiderwick Chronicles

Starring Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte

Directed by Mark Waters

Rated PG

Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi have made a pretty mint out of their series of Spiderwick books, micro-thin hardbacks with high price tags and fine line drawings of goblins and fairies.

Collected together, the books tell the story of Jared, Simon, and Mallory Grace, three children who end up in a creepy house in the middle of nowhere. They find a book written by their Uncle Spiderwick, charting the lives and horrible habits of the fantastical creatures around them.

At first glance, the slim volumes seem unlikely candidates for a Hollywood fantasy movie. After bombastic adaptations of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia and A Series of Unfortunate Events, is there really a market for even more kids’ fantasy?

Or will audiences, as one Spiderwick movie reviewer put it, begin suffering from “fantasy fatigue”?

The answers of course are yes and yes.

It’s happened before, after all, with other genres. Hollywood producers see a trend, snap up the rights to a literary property, and hope the genre element will be enough to pull in the crowds.

Cecil B. DeMille’s success launched many biblical epic imitators; George Lucas’ melting pot repackaging of war movies, westerns, and comic books in Star Wars led to a decade of B-movie space operas. Filmmakers like Roger Corman and Dino De Laurentiis recycled Lucas’ already-recycled ideas and missed the point: The concepts mattered, not the sci-fi trappings.

With Spiderwick the film, the same thing seems to be happening.

It’s a movie of extremes — the first act breaks the cardinal rule of show, don’t tell, giving us far too much information about the feelings and lives of the Grace family through stodgy dialogue. The refreshingly down-to-earth children of the book are replaced by characters who talk like psychology majors.

Simon (Freddie Highmore) explains, “I’m a pacifist. I don’t do conflict.” Uh, thanks for the information on your character, kid. How about giving it to us in a way that doesn’t sound like it’s scripted?

All right, these are New Yorkers so we expect them to vocalize, but these are the kind of children who end a discussion by saying, “end of discussion.” Yet they use brawn, not brains, when fighting the monsters that besiege their house.

The young actors do their best with the material — particularly Highmore in two distinct roles — and there are likeable barely-there cameos by Nick Nolte and Andrew McCarthy. Mary-Louise Parker, who’s normally a strong actress, is the only thesp out of her depth. She misses opportunities to add complexity to her portrayal of a mom who should be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

When the goblins and sylphs start appearing, Spiderwick goes to the opposite end of the show-don’t-tell spectrum. We are shown almost everything in convincing Technicolor CGI.

There’s a steady pace, a tight running time, and a tear-jerking ending that contrasts the children’s loss of their dad (he’s separated from mom) with their Auntie’s loss of her own father. The audience learns that by looking at things in a different way, you can get a second chance in life, and the children learn that there’s nothing more satisfying than sweet, vicious vengeance.

So what’s to be done to stop the fantasy bubble from bursting the way the sci-fi one did in the ’80s, or the western one did in the ’70s? A refreshingly different approach always helps, and once in a while, an inevitable gem will slip through despite the worst intentions of the Hollywood studios.

Bridge to Terabithia was a surprisingly restrained, child-friendly guide to dealing with loneliness and bereavement. The Golden Compass was a much-hyped primer to the work of Philip Pullman, an author with a healthy skepticism of organized religion. Like the late Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, The Golden Compass encouraged readers to question blind faith. The latter was bashed by critics like Bill Donohue, president of the Christian League, as “bait for the books.” In his opinion, the dumbed-down, family-friendly flick might lead kids to read the novels and start thinking for themselves.

The best children’s fantasy books balance the teen appeal of adventure fiction and the strange and wonderful ideas that encourage imaginative thought. By watering down the ideas and highlighting the adventure, Hollywood may fill its movie theaters, but without the ideas that made the books intriguing in the first place, the snotty special effects will get fatiguing very quickly.

Fortunately, we’ll always have the books when the next movie bubble bursts.

Film Trailer

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