Here’s the thing about The Spiderwick Chronicles. No matter how admirable the girl with expertise in fencing or spunky the twins played by Freddy Highmore, the movie is about bad dads. That one of them is punished cruelly on screen and in front of his children suggests that this might not be the least traumatizing movie experience for kids seeking diversion on Valentine’s Day Weekend.
And so there’s the other thing about Spiderwick. It’s hard to overlook the peculiarity of this holiday (an infamously commercial invention now turned into a launch for a four-day box-office accounting) as a starting point for the aspiring “family movie” franchise. That’s not to say counter-programming isn’t effective, especially when courting the preteen demo, but still, the movie’s obvious dumping into the ritually bad-movie morass of February doesn’t bode well.
Spiderwick introduces the bad dad concept right off: as beleaguered mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) pulls her vehicle into the driveway of her brood’s new gothicky home, she sighs. Big sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twin brothers Simon and Jared (Highmore) look with some dread at their new home, a sense of foreboding enhanced by the murky nighttime and Simon’s visible grumpiness. “The house that time forgot,” murmurs Jared, not exactly easing the tension.
In fact, he’s not far off. Inside, Simon discovers a book left hidden away by the previous tenant, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). Informed by a house brownie named Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) that the tome is a field guide to a fairy world best not read by humans, Simon proceeds to read, in the process becoming a target of the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte, who actually lumbers onto the screen for a minute before the character is transformed into digital bits of ogreness), who plans to use the secrets in the guide to take over the world. Or something like that.
As Simon enlists the help of his siblings and a hobgoblin Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), he’s embroiled in various combats with the woodsy creatures, including the hobgoblins who are deemed uglier than Hogsqueal and other fierce-faced, not especially convincingly rendered beasties. As Simon and Jared are allowed to see these yucky things by having magically gooey spittle deposited in their eyes (Sarah spends most of the movie having to look through a special rock donut that allows her to see, until at last she gets the spittle treatment as well), they find it a little harder to convince adults that the fairy world exists. Still, they know they need to save humanity and to do that, they must locate Uncle Arthur, trapped in some alternative dimension — after having disappeared some 70ish years ago and so, abandoning his own young daughter.
As Jared and Simon are similarly feeling abandoned, they will also be learning some useful lessons about forgiveness and moving on. That Helen is apparently unable to help with this education and reduced to being the parent who needs to be forgiven (Simon blames her for driving dad away) is hardly surprising, but it is discouraging. Helen’s a stalwart, distracted, and oblivious sort of mom, though when called on to defend the house that time forgot against viscous, large, and wall-and-floor decimating monster, she proves to be pretty good with a homemade weapon that shoots tomato juice (like poison to these organisms).
As Spiderwick keeps time with the notion that kids’ fantasies must feature bad, absent, or otherwise troubling parents, it also offers precious little in the way of clued-in adults or even adults with a modicum of competence in dealing with their children’s fears or worries. If this premise isn’t new, the execution feels even older, despite the supposed “updates” on such themes offered by computer effects. Scatter-shotty and uninspired, the movie seems an effort to cash in on Harry Potter and Narnia business, a sub-franchise without the energy or gumption to catch up to the originals, much less surpass them. Perhaps most disturbing is the idea that Arthur’s daughter has spent her entire life damaged — not only by his disappearance but also by her having witnessed it. Like Fox Mulder, she’s been taunted for holding to her version of events. Unlike Mulder, however, she has been unable to turn her obsession into a career. And so she remains a damaged daughter, afraid, alone, and in need of rescue by a couple of twin boys.