One of the more pleasant surprises in film I've seen lately, "The Spiderwick Chornicles" manages to be a family fantasy adventure that can appeal to both adults and older (as the picture is too scary for the youngest kids) children. The film is based upon the novels by Tony DiTerrlizzi and Holly Black and opens with the recently divorced Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) taking her three children - Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twins Jared and Simon (both Freddy Highmore) - to the Spiderwick Estate, which was left to her by her aunt, Lucinda (Joan Plowright).
However, little does the family know that, eighty years ago, Arthur Spiderwick lived at the estate and wrote, "Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You", a book about mysterious creatures, which gained the attention of the evil Mulgrath (Nick Nolte), who wanted to use the power of the book for his own cause.
In the present, Jared finds a secret dumbwaiter behind a wall, which ends up leading him to Arthur's long-lost study, where he finds the book. Soon enough, the small army of creatures - lead by Mulgrath - are once again converging on the house, relentlessly trying to figure out a way past the protective ring around the house in order to get the book.
While Jared unsuccessfully tries to convince the others of the impending danger, his brother, sister and mother come to believe him when they find themselves crossing paths with the creatures. One of the reasons why I appreciated the picture as much as I did was that, unlike most family fare, the picture does manage to be surprisingly rather dark at times and scary enough that I would recommend thinking twice before letting younger children watch this movie.
However, while it may frighten younger children, older children and adults will likely find the tense, generally fast-paced film holds the attention. Additionally, the picture does manage to weave in a handful of genuinely dramatic and emotional moments without slowing down the pace. The performances are terrific - especially Highmore in a dual role.
A few concerns do weigh on the picture, but they're relatively minor and include some instances of CGI use that doesn't look quite as seamless as it does in other parts of the picture. Additionally, while the picture is enjoyably fast-paced throughout much of the running time, some additional character and story development could have likely been added without wrecking the flow of the film. At about 100 minutes, I wouldn't have minded another 20 to bring it up to an even 2 hours.Overall, despite a few minor concerns, I found this to be a highly entertaining fantasy film that exceeded my expectations.
VIDEO: "Spiderwick Chronicles" is presented by Paramount in 2.35:1. The presentation generally looked quite good, aside from a few nitpicks here-and-there. Sharpness and detail remained above-average throughout much of the movie, although a few scenes did appear slightly softer than the rest. Colors remained mildly subdued, although likely by intent. Black level remained solid throughout and flesh tones looked accurate and natural. While not flawless, this was a very pleasing presentation overall.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is a good deal of fun, as the surrounds are brought into the action on several occasions to deliver various creepy sound effects and eerie ambience. While the soundtrack could have been even more aggressive, the sound mix was more than satisfying, as family film audio presentations go. Audio quality remained terrific, with crisp effects and clear dialogue.
EXTRAS: "It's All True" acts as something of an intro to the movie and, for several minutes, has director Mark Waters discussing the story and characters. "Itís a Spiderwick World" is a featurette that has Waters, the writers and other crew members discussing the inspiration for the story and how the decision was made to adapt the story for the screen. "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide" is a feature that can either be viewed by itself or within the film, and it offers detailed looks at the characters.
The second disc offers three lengthier featurettes - "Making Spiderwick", "The Magic of Spiderwick" and "Meet the Clan". The three run anywhere from about 15-21 minutes and, while not particularly in-depth, do provide a reasonably good overview of different aspects (cast in "Meet the Clan", filming in "Making" and finally, effects in "The Magic of Spiderwick") of the production.
We also get 9 TV spots, 4 deleted scenes, two trailers and a "Final Word of Advice" from Waters to wrap up the second disc.
Final Thoughts: "The Spiderwick Chronicles" offers quite a few thrills and remains a fun, entertaining fantasy film with fine performances. The Special Edition ("Field Guide Edition") offers very good audio/video quality. The extras are a tad fluffy, but do provide some decent tidbits about the production. Recommended.
The Film B+