Almost a year ago to the day, Disney and Walden Media released a family feature titled Bridge to Terabithia, which was marketed as a special effects extravaganza aimed at young audiences. And what did we end up getting? A whip-smart film that perfectly captured the imagination and camaraderie of two best friends and a wonderful story of how their bond of friendship was tragically broken. It also used special effects to help advance the story rather than having them stand out above all else. Suffice to say that lightning does not strike twice with The Spiderwick Chronicles, which is everything we expected Bridge to Terabithia to be: a dumbed-down children’s fable that may be suitable for audience members under the age of ten but for everyone else, it’s a chore to sit through.

This film is more along the lines of the fall released The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, (there are some similarities) only worse. No one seems to be taking things seriously, behind or in front of the camera. The picture is chintzy, cliched, puerile, ridiculously contrived, and even derivative (I kid you not, there is a scene straight out of 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Seeing how the film has already received a 76 percent approval at Rottentomatoes, this is an early contender for the most overrated film of the early year. Apparently it was okay, for once, for critics to check their brains in at the door. I guess I didn’t get the memo.

Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker, 2002’s Red Dragon), recently separated from her husband, moves to the country from New York City with her daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger, 2006’s Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker) and twin sons Jared and Simon (Freddie Highmore, 2007’s August Rush). The house they move into was owned by Helen’s great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, 2006’s We Are Marshall) , who mysteriously disappeared and as a result his daughter, Lucinda (played as an elder by Joan Plowright, 2005’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont), was driven to a state of mental illness and was committed.

Jared discovers a secret attic in which Arthur Spiderwick worked out of. He discovers a book with a caveat not to open and read it. But being the curious young lad he is, he does. The book is a journal that Spiderwick wrote all of his findings of a hidden world filled with both fantastical creatures and a race of goblins, led by a particularly nasty, nefarious ogre called Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte), bent on world domination. Jared also meets a house elf, who, like all the creatures in the story, cannot be seen unless desired, living in Spiderwick’s attic called Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short). Thimbletack tells Jared that because he has read the book and taken it outside of the house, Mulgarath and his minions will be drawn to it. Of course, Jared’s family doesn’t believe his story until they are actually attacked by the said goblins and soon the Grace family finds themselves fighting to save the world, for Spiderwick’s book contains secrets about this alternate world and Mulgarath will stop at nothing to learn them. If he does he will be able to destroy everything. How he’ll be able to isn’t explained but that’s just what the film tells us.

That’s the film in a nutshell: nothing is cogent and everything is superficial to the core. Director Mark Waters (2004’s Mean Girls) and screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick , David Berenbaum, and John Sayles seem to only care about the action by giving us a Cliffnotes version of what the film should be. The characters are like statues, the dialogue is lazy, and the whole premise is childish. What really did it for me though, the point where I lost all sense of forgiveness, is how so much of The Spiderwick Chronicles feels like it’s from other fantasy films. 1995’s Jumanji comes to mind and, as mentioned earlier, there is a scene almost identical to one from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix with the kids riding a bird-like creature with hind-legs through the sky.

As he showed with Mean Girls director Mark Waters appears to have had an interesting concept on his hands and yet he hasn’t the faintest idea about what to do with it but make it a textbook amateurish example of fantasy filmmaking. Even the special effects here aren’t even close to an asset that can salvage the picture. The creatures, especially the goblins, look atrocious. The only scene that even touches upon the potential the film has comes toward the end and involves Arthur Spiderwick standing in a field enraptured by songs of fairies and losing perception of time. Unfortunately the scene is nothing but an ephemera as it comes too little too late.

Poor Freddie Highmore, who just can’t seem to find his way into a quality picture in his young career. On top of being given very little to work with, he is asked to play a dual role here. Furthermore the personalities of Jared and Simon are almost polar opposites. Jared is the troubled child who has been affected the most by his parents’ separation and he is a trouble maker. Simon is the smart aleck, quiet, every mother’s dream child who is a perfected version of Jared. Highmore isn’t convincing in either of the roles, but I won’t criticize him too much. After all he’s only a child actor, not Nicolas Cage (referring to the dual role Cage played in 2002’s Adaptation).

As Jared’s mother and sister, Mary-Louise Parker and Sarah Bolger are paint-by-the-numbers in their roles. Every conceivable predictable thing the viewer expects from them one way or another finds its way to the screen. David Strathairn is intriguing as Arthur Spiderwick but far too underused to have an impact. The same holds true for Joan Plowright as the elder version of Lucinda. Nick Nolte shows up for a cameo scene, collects his paycheck and wisely gets the hell out of the picture. Martin Short doesn’t provide much comic relief nor does Seth Rogen as a hobgoblin named Hogsqueal.

The Spiderwick Chronicles seems like nothing more than the reverie of a youngster during a school lecture. It’s also a pastiche of other and better fantasy flicks. Everything about it is just insipid and lackluster. The story is a bunch of hokum, useful only as a bed time story to put children straight to sleep. By the time the more anticipated pictures of spring and summer arrive, The Spiderwick Chronicles should be long out of memory.

Grade: D+


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