After his family move into a long-disappeared relatives country house, young Jared Grace (Highmore) discovers a field guide to fantastical creatures. Opening the book, however, alerts its presence to a very real, very nasty ogre who wants it for himself.
Loveable as they may be, The Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter have a lot to answer for. The scramble that followed those two franchises by studios anxious to adapt every last children’s fantasy book was like watching trolls at feeding time. Consequently, any addition to this newly crowded genre needs to really pull out the stops to impress.
When Paramount announced its intentions to turn some comparatively little-known books into its next big kid’s flick, the initial reaction was, “Spider-whatnow?” But, as with most of Paramount’s 2008 output, it knew what to do with a good thing. At first glance, you’re not presented with much: single-parent family - Freddie Highmore as twins Jared and Simon and Sarah Bolger as their sister - moves to big old house in New England countryside, owned by distant and odd relatives. Boy finds book of goblins, faeries, trolls etc., and presto: the house is attacked by an ogre called Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) and his army.
Kudos to whoever thought to bring on Mark Waters as director. He has Mean Girls and Freaky Friday on his CV, and clearly has great recall of what he enjoyed on screen as a kid, because the real strength of The Spiderwick Chronicles is how well it brings to mind a lot of older entries in the genre.
From its opening, James Horner’s spot-on score and some great production design on the Spiderwick house will put even adults right where it wants you - part E. T., part Labyrinth, with a dash of The Goonies.
The screenplay chooses to fold in elements from across the series of books rather than adapting any single story, but what could have been a godawful mash-up works quite nicely with, again, almost nostalgic beats - nods to Potter, Narnia and Jumanji and new twists on familiar ground. Occasionally, though, it writes itself into a corner, and even small kids might think they’ve seen some things before.
Small grumbles aside, there’s plenty to enjoy. Freddie Highmore is terrific and believable as twin characters - each with a refreshingly real personality - and the film doesn’t pull its punches on PG-rated scares. Also, glory be, it’s not part of a planned umpteen-film series.
A late entry in a crowded field, Spiderwick works hard to set itself apart from the competition, and almost entirely succeeds - no mean feat these days.