Background: Fantasy movies made largely for children abound these days, their overall financial success propped up in no small part by all the revenue streams including toys, cable sales, and the like but few truly making a large profit right away. As Hollywood often does, it has been mining a wealth of written texts to inspire bigger budget releases, perhaps acknowledging the built in audience of the books as a "given" and trying to balance the end result between the dedicated few loyalists that want the books mirrored with the mass audiences that don't want to read up on the material first. Well, from what I understand, The Spiderwick Chronicles largely achieves that goal, offering the kind of action and adventure that doesn't often play down to the audience as so many other translations seem to do.
Movie: The Spiderwick Chronicles is set in the world built by writers Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi; a fantasy world full of all the creatures one would expect of a children's series but little of the free flowing magic we've seen in the Harry Potter releases. Without too many spoilers, I'll try to provide you with an overview of what to expect and why you should have this one on your short list regardless of your age, summing it up at the end. The most logical comparisons a critic could make would, on the surface at least, be the various Harry Potter effects of recent years but frankly, outside of passing similarities that derive from genre wide concepts, I don't think most of them I've read were overly thought out. Suffice it to say, Spiderwick stands on its own two feet and you can enjoy both series quite independent of each other with little room for saying either is better given they are not truly much alike so here goes!
The story starts out with the Grace family moving out of expensive New York City into a rural community more conducive to their financial straits given a recent divorce. Led by mother Helen (Mary Louise Parker), the three children, uppity Mallory (Sarah Bolger), passive Simon (Freddie Highmore), and disgruntled Jared (also Freddie Highmore) have different takes on the events that have led them here, moving into a large family estate tentatively owned by an aunt in a mental institution. Almost immediately upon placing their belongings inside the house, the children are fighting over missing items, setting the stage for what will happen to them. Jared is greatly upset at his father's leaving, blaming his mother in the way that children do, checking out forbidden parts of the house to find a mysterious book in a locked chest. Kids have a great way of getting into things and Jared is no different, reading the book despite a dire warning about the contents (truth be told, telling anyone not to touch the forbidden fruit of knowledge usually results in them wanting it all the more).
Jared soon studies the secrets of the book as written down by Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), the father of the institutionalized aunt Lucinda, figuring out that his own observations support the realities contained within. He meets an assortment of characters along the way, including Thimbletack (Martin Short) and hobgoblin Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), but doesn't get thrown into the dangerous aspect of his newfound knowledge until his brother ventures out beyond the house's protective barrier. It seems that the wealth of secrets that Arthur so studiously wrote down have a lot of value to the local baddy, an ogre by the name of Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) and his goblin minions. They will do anything to get hold of the book, including dragging Simon to their lair as the twin looks like Jared enough to fool the dark forces. The rest of the story deals with Jared and his family fending off the evil forces, knowing that if they fail or agree to terms with them; their fates are sealed. Unlike the convenient magic's of the Potter tales, the Grace's must rely on age old spells and Jared's knowledge gleamed from the book itself, presenting enough twists & turns to keep even the most jaded adult viewer interested (and younger audiences fascinated).
The believable performances added to the fun factor here as did the writing with the admittedly handsome special effects helping to create the fascinating world of the books rather than supplant the rest of the movie as so many of these flicks seem to do (ala Potter). The way the kids are intelligent and three dimensional make them better role models just as the realities of divorce and emotional pain were better handled here than I expected. Granted, there were still some gaping plot holes that could have been addressed better (without spoiling it, the judicious use of tomato juice from behind the protective shield comes to mind) and the blending of the special effects inside the two were not as realistic as the use in the forests or around the house, but the total experience sure made me want to get copies of the original books and watch a sequel so I rated this one as Highly Recommended.
Picture: The Spiderwick Chronicles was presented in a very appealing 2.35:1 widescreen color as shot by director Mark Waters and offered up in the AVC codec and toping 30 Mbps in the video bitrate much of the time. The flesh tones were accurate, the CGI effects extremely well handled by ILM, and the detail of the 1080p resolution exceptionally fetching on the eyes. The minimal noise in a few areas of the flick were hardly noticed until I was watching it a second time specifically for review, and the blacks were truly black with the kind of presentation I wish higher budget releases would embrace more often. The blending of the CGI and human elements was among the best I've seen from the company and certainly added some value to show off mid to high end home theaters. I saw no blocking or aliasing either time I watched it and as those who watched it with me suggested, there is considerable evidence that the picture was superior to other genre releases, including several of the Potter flicks though it was not perfect by any means.
Sound: The audio was presented in a range of usual choices with the primary track coming out in 5.1 Dolby TrueHD (5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish & French tracks also available) using a 48 kHz output and the variable bitrate often exceeding 4 Mbps. My experience with variable bitrate audio in this format is minimal but I can safely state that the audio really worked for me in assisting the visuals to make the world complete. The vocals were all placed nicely and clearly understood, the special effects superior, and the score fabulously detailed with a lot of use of the entire surround stage. The bass boomed in the right spots and the high ends were catered to quite well, the mixing top notch compared to some of the other fantasy titles out there. I did happen to notice a couple of minor quirks with synch but they were rare and unless I point them out, you probably will never notice them yourselves. For those who care, there were also subtitles in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. In all then, the technical aspects were well done!
Extras: So many blu-ray titles have been bare bones of late that I really appreciate it when a company steps up to the plate as Paramount is known to do. In this case, the extras almost outweighed the feature itself in terms of entertainment value, requiring me to take a lot longer to finish the complete review but giving me additional insight as well. The first extra on the disc was a 7:04 minute long clip called Spiderwick: It's All True! The feature was mastered in MPEG-2 but had a HD bitrate for those that care; the show allowing the director to introduce some of the main characters. This was followed by the 6:44 minute long It's A Spiderwick World where the original authors gave a head's up on the origin of the stories they wrote, providing the background for the modern day fable that led to the movie. Then came the extensive Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide that essentially combined pages from the artistic book with clips from the movie (in high definition) to outline the characters. There is an "in-movie" version of this as well to give you a look at the creatures as they appear in the flick too but I doubt many will need it since they are written so straightforward and commented on at length. Then came the Meet the Clan extra lasting 15:54 minutes; detailing the human characters and the actors that play them, a self explanatory 20:53 minute long Making Spiderwick, a 14:23 minute long The Magic of Spiderwick that dealt with the special effects (mainly the animated characters), a quick 1:51 minute long comment from the director with "A Final Word of Advice!", an 8:14 minute selection of deleted scenes (several of which added something to the understanding of the movie's characters), and some theatrical & television trailers for the movie. I liked that the content here was presented in high definition (albeit not given as great a mastering job) but the volume of quality material alone was nicely done.
Final Thoughts: The Spiderwick Chronicles was full of the magic and wonder that great children movies often have, balancing out the roller coaster aspects of the action portions with the thoughtful exposition parts that fleshed out the movie for me as an adult. The books cover much of the material in greater depth and I have heard that some fans wanted it to be more true to the written series but the mark of a successful movie like this is often that it serves both sides of the coin, making most people happy. That said, my nonexistent exposure to the books limits my direct observations to compare them but this was very entertaining for me and some friends, the kind that is based in a rich tradition of folklore and likely to win the series a wider audience as it deserves. Perhaps a sequel will allow the producers to expand upon some aspects of the series or even go into all new territory but I look forward to seeing what comes next if this one is the guide to how the material will be treated.