Freddie Highmore as Jared and Simon Grace
Sarah Bolger as Mallory Grace
Mary-Louise Parker as Helen Grace
David Strathairn as Arthur Spiderwick
Joan Plowright as Aunt Lucinda
Martin Short as the voice of Thimbletack
Seth Rogen as the voice of Hogsqueal
Nick Nolte as the voice of Mulgrath
Andrew McCarthy as Mr. Grace
It must be a very modern fairy tale if it starts out with divorce, and that is exactly how Mark Waters ("Mean Girls") adaptation of "The Spiderwick Chronicles" begins, as Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) and her children prepare to start their lives over – whether they want to or not – beginning with moving into the home of their crazy aunt who was never quite the same after her father Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) – a sort of magical naturalist – disappeared, claiming he was abducted by the very fairies he studied. Except, as the children quickly discover, everything he ever wrote was true.
"The Spiderwick Chronicles" follows safely in the footsteps of the various modern children's adventure stories that have been springing up like weeds since the success of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. It's set in the here and now rather than some distant land or time, contrasting the hidden magical world with the modern, and filled with characters who are as concerned with modern problems (specifically the dissolution and redefinition of family) as they are with the fight between good and evil. At the crossroads of these various trains of thought is Jared (Freddie Highmore, in a dual role as identical twins), the only one of the children unable to cope with their sudden change in circumstances, responding to his inner turmoil by lashing out in anger at everyone and everything.
Highmore is actually quite good in both roles, keenly separating volatile Jared from pacifistic, introverted Simon. Both characters are well individualized, right down to their body language, so that even when Highmore is sharing the screen with himself, its obvious which character he's playing right from the beginning. And just as satisfying is Sarah Bolger ("In America") as older sister Mallory who has the mix of older sibling derision, concern, and physical bullying down so well she must have a young brother or sister of her own. In an interesting twist, Mallory – a fencing enthusiast – is the muscle of the group while Jared and Simon tend to be the problem solvers.
The adult actors though... there's just something about adult actors in children's films that compels them to try and out-precious their younger co-stars, and it feels an awful lot like being talked down to. No one ever seems comfortable trying to deliver a real or true performance when they're dealing with goblins and faeries, but when dealing with such fantasy, and I've said this before, reality is exactly what's needed most.
That's not entirely fair. Parker actually does quite fine as the beleaguered single mother trying to deal with the stress of ending her marriage, uprooting her life and keeping the family together and functioning. It probably helps that of all the adult actors her motivations are the closest to the real world that she has something solid to hang onto. Everyone else though... Strathairn's sort of absent-minded professor seems to fit with his character's circumstances, but Plowright is wasted in a whirl of exposition and Nolte as the human version of arch villain Mulgrath is positively annoying.
But not nearly as annoying as the various CG creatures that inhabit the world. While the effects themselves are quite good (not entirely realistic, but it's an aesthetic that actually fits with their out-of-this-world nature) the characterization is awful. Waters and his screenwriters (including, according to the credits, John Sayles, though I can't see where his actual contribution might have been) have made the typical-of-kids-films decision to have them be as cartoony and over the top as possible, with Seth Rogen's hobgoblin and Martin Short's bi-polar brownie competing for most headache inducing. I give the edge to Thimbletack, if only because he talks entirely in rhyme. They're quite shamelessly aimed at the younger audience the film hopes to attract, much like the sidekicks of a Disney cartoon. In fact, exactly like them. There really are times when it feels like if a group of marketers got together to survey children's fantasy films and create a new one, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is what they might come up with.
Because, for all the fairies and ogres and design and effects at play in "The Spiderwick Chronicles" there is a depressing lack of imagination involved. Twenty years ago it might have been a contender, but today it's merely following the modern children's story playbook, step by step. It's hard to tell how much of that comes from the filmmakers and how much from the original book, but I suspect it's a little of both.
It's also quite dark and violent in places, particularly whenever Mulgrath and his minions show up, more so than might be suitable for the under-eight audience the film is clearly aiming at the rest of the time. It's this kind of jumbled tone that makes you wonder who the filmmakers are actually making the movie for.
All that said, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is actually not as bad as it sounds, though what charm it does have rests largely on Highmore's shoulders. As family friendly fantasy movies go it's pretty solidly in the middle, its resolve to take no chances whatsoever keeping it from ever being more.