I realize that The Spiderwick Chronicles, new on DVD from Paramount, is based on a series of books, and I realize it also follows hugely popular children’s fantasies such as the Harry Potter and Narnia movies, and all these things dictate that it play out in a certain way.
Nonetheless, while watching the film, I kept thinking about a comparable woodland fantasy involving children which, in a big way, puts Spiderwick to shame. I know it’s an unreasonable comparison given Spiderwick’s source novels and its marketing imperatives — I know, I know — but dang, the film pales next to a movie it clumsily evokes, Pan’s Labyrinth.
You see, that Spanish masterpiece spoiled me. Its impecable artistry, its haunting music and mood, its rivetting performances, its less feverish and more eerily compelling creatures — all combine to make Guillermo del Toro’s three-time Oscar winner a classic picture. Spiderwick? It’s product.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the cast and appreciated the setup, with flashbacks to David Strathairn as a charming scientist/dad who discovers unseen creatures roiling in the woods around his remote house. (His tragic back-story about Tampering Where No Man Should even reminded me of some beloved old Outer Limits episodes, such as Don’t Open Till Doomsday and The Bellero Shield.)
I was less enthused, yet tolerant, of the woefully cliched modern fractured family of a solo mom and three kids (Strathairn’s descendants) who are all about strident, bitter rancor and resentment. They are not about appreciating that they have food to eat, a roof over their heads, wondrous woods to explore and each other. What miserable folks with whom to spend a movie. But hey — at least they’re flesh and blood.
As for the creatures, they’re cartoons — well, CG — and thus have very little impact in an otherwise live-action flick. I mean, they’re just too absurd — like Muppets gone bad. And once the creatures appear and the action begins, Spiderwick, for me, is just another empty CG-driven flick that’s all about flashy action and has precious little to do with storytelling, character development, mood, ambience or meaning — you know, the little things.
That said, if you’re a Potter/Narnia/you-name-it fan of child-geared fantasy, and you need a fix, Spiderwick will do. Heck, it’s even got a cameo by Lady Olivier, that is, Joan Plowright, whose former husband was perhaps the greatest actor of the 20th Century, and she’s still going strong. But Freddie Highmore’s self-obsessed, reckless, resentful, hateful protagonist — and the absurd CG creatures he meets — well, you can have them.
As for me, I’ve got a good reason to watch Pan’s Labyrinth again, if only as a more heartening reminder of the huge difference between films that are slavish product and those that aspire to art.