The Spiderwick Chronicles


Who says kids don't listen?

Who says kids don’t listen?

(2008) Fantasy (Paramount) Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, Martin Short (voice), Seth Rogan (voice), Andrew McCarthy, Jordy Benattar, Tod Fennell, Mariah Inger, Jeremy Lavalley, Lise Durocher-Viens, Ron Perlman (voice), Tyler Patrick Jones, Kyle Switzer, Stefanie Broos. Directed by Mark Waters

Young adult fantasy novels have fared poorly when given the cinematic treatment by various Hollywood entities, some worse than others. While studios are obviously eager to find the next Harry Potter or the next Katniss Everdeen, sometimes in an effort to make a franchise they overlook the simple solution of telling a good story well.

The Grace family has taken their share of blows lately. Mother Helen (Parker) has packed up and moved from New York City into “the middle of nowhere” to a decrepit estate she has inherited from her Aunt Lucinda (Plowright), who has been taken to a sanitarium after a suicide attempt. Her children are handling their situation differently. Mallory (Bolger), the oldest, clearly is behind her mother. She’s obsessed with fencing (the kind with swords, not pickets) and carries her sword with her nearly everywhere she goes. Younger brother Simon (Highmore) has become decidedly non-confrontational (perhaps in response to conflicts between his parents) and instead focuses on his love for animals.

It is Simon’s twin Jared (Highmore again) who is having the toughest time. Already burdened with anger control issues, he feels betrayed by his mother and is anxious to live with his father (McCarthy) instead. He lashes out at his siblings and mother, who tries very hard to be understanding but is obviously close to cracking herself.

It all starts with Jared hearing noises in the wall, banging on them with a broom. Eventually, Mallory accidentally uncovers a dumbwaiter, hidden in the walls behind plaster. In the dumbwaiter are trinkets, including some small items that have disappeared, such as Mallory’s fencing medals and Helen’s car keys, as well as a curious looking key with an old-fashioned letter “S” fashioned into it. Jared is blamed for this (it seems he is usually blamed for any mischief that occurs) and decides to see what is at the other end of the dumbwaiter.

He discovers the dusty old laboratory of his great grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), who disappeared years ago. Using the strange key to open up a trunk he finds in the room, he finds a hard-bound book that has been sealed with wax accompanied by a note warning the finder not to read the book upon peril of their lives. Of course, that only whets the boy’s curiosity and of course like any idiot Hollywood boy he opens it up and reads it.

What he finds is Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, with copious notes about magical creatures – fairies, trolls, goblins, griffons and ogres, to name a few – as well as means of performing all manners of magic. Unfortunately, the opening of the book has set into motion events that put the lives of the Grace family, as well as all the magical creatures in the book, in mortal danger. Young Jared will have to summon all the courage he can find to survive the perils of the Fantastical World.

A surprisingly solid cast for what is intended to be the first of series of movies which, I’m sure, Paramount was hoping to be successful along the lines of the Harry Potter novels. Children’s fantasy movies, however, have fared less than stellar other than the Potter and Narnia books – see The Golden Compass, The Last Mimzy and Eragon if you haven’t already.

Getting Highmore is a good first step. He’s done exceedingly well in such movies as Finding Neverland and August Rush. This isn’t, sadly, one of his better performances – I think it was a bit much to ask him to take two differing roles. He does OK with Jared, but Simon becomes washed-out and forgettable. The producers would have been better served to get another young actor to take the Simon role. Bolger is decent enough as the sister and Parker does some good work as the much put-upon mother.

Plowright nearly steals the movie as Aunt Lucinda; she is simply so much better than the rest of the cast. Strathairn is one of my favorite actors, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do here. Even so, he makes the role of Arthur Spiderwick living and breathing.

As for the voice actors, Martin Short is decent as the brownie Thimbletack, but it is Rogan who is so much more entertaining as the easily distracted hobgoblin Hogsqueal. Nolte gets brief on-screen time as the shape-shifting Mulgarath but it is mostly his rumbling voice that we hear throughout.

As solid as the cast is, the talent behind the camera is impressive as well. Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall have, among others, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark to their credits. Legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (father of Zooey and Emily) is responsible for the creepy atmosphere and gorgeous vistas. Oscar-winning composer James Horner has supplied some memorable theme music over the years, although his score doesn’t really hold up as well in this instance. Some Jim Dandy special effects here, mostly from ILM and Tippett Studios (Phil Tippett himself worked for ILM back in the Star Wars days). That’s a good thing, since the movie relies heavily on special effects.

The supporting performances are certainly worth noting. Some of the special effects are magnificent, although not groundbreaking. The creatures (particularly Hogsqueal) are all given a certain amount of individuality and come off realistically and holistically. The story is a little different from most children’s fantasies going on at the moment, although for God’s sake can’t the kids in these stories have two actual parents present? Ye Gods!

The kid actors can be kinda grating. Jared is not an easy character to like and at times, you wonder if everyone involved wouldn’t be much happier if Mulgarath would only eat him.  Occasionally, the effects work actually overwhelms the action. There are some instances in which the children are being chased by various nasty varmints and quite frankly, couldn’t possibly get away given the speed of the creatures and the distance behind the kids they are. After the third instance of this, you really begin to notice it.

It is very enjoyable for the whole family (except as delineated above). Sometimes, kid’s fantasy movies seem a bit too sanitized; this is most assuredly not that. The peril seems real and life-threatening, and while the effects aren’t eye-popping, they nevertheless are enjoyable. Think of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in a modern setting with all the viscera intact and you won’t be far from the mark here.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive cast, impressive effects. Refreshingly original as recent young adult franchise novels go. The creatures, although frightening, are plenty imaginative.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jared is intensely unlikable. Some of the physics don’t work.
FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the creatures are much scarier than the PG rating would indicate. There are also plenty of instances of kids in peril, and some of the thematic content is on the mature side.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the first Nickelodeon branded film has been released in the IMAX format.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are interviews with the book’s authors, as well as comparisons between the book’s illustrations and the creatures as they appeared in the film. These appear on both DVD and Blu-Ray editions.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $162.8M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Eye in the Sky

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Shrek Forever After


Shrek Forever After

Rumpelstiltskin is hacked off when he finds out this isn't The Incredible Hulk.

(DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas, Julie Andrews, John Cleese, Jon Hamm, Kathy Griffin, Craig Robinson, Walt Dohrn, Jane Lynch, Lake Bell, Mary Kay Place, Meredith Vieira, Ryan Seacrest, Larry King, Regis Philbin, Kristen Schaal. Directed by Mike Mitchell

One of the great ironies of life is that we rarely appreciate what we have until it’s gone, even when we are fully aware that we have everything we want. This is true of people and also true of ogres.

Shrek (Myers) has everything; a wife who loves him madly, three cute little ogre kids and good friends. Still, he is beginning to reach a bit of a mid-life crisis. He has lost his inner ogre-ness; no longer is he scaring villagers with his mighty roar. In fact, his ogre roar has become a party trick. He spends more time changing diapers than relaxing in his mud pit. To add insult to injury, tour buses stop regularly by his house to watch him stomp into his outhouse. It’s humiliating.

After an argument with his wife Fiona (Diaz) at their son’s first birthday party Shrek finds himself wondering what his life would be like if he hadn’t rescued his wife from the Dragon’s Keep all those years ago. This is overheard by Rumpelstiltskin (Dohrn), an evil little wizard who specializes in magical agreements that carry with them terrible consequences.

He offers Shrek the opportunity to return to being an ogre for a day. In exchange, he wants one day from Shrek’s childhood, one that Shrek would never remember. Shrek, after some initial misgivings, agrees.

He is whisked away via magical maelstrom to the village, where he enjoys terrorizing the villagers and their livestock and pets, and wallowing in the mud. Things are going swimmingly and he is enjoying his inner ogre again, but when he goes home he discovers his home is deserted. His friend Donkey (Murphy) doesn’t know him, and Far Far Away has a new king – Rumpelstiltskin.

It turns out that the evil little munchkin had taken the day Shrek was born, which means that when his 24 hours end, Shrek will cease to exist. In fact, in this reality, he’d never been born, so nobody knows who he is. It’s sort of a twisted It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the meantime, Fiona has become the leader of a rebel underground, the proud owner of a now fat, sassy and lazy Puss in Boots (Banderas). Her right hand man is a lantern-jawed ogre named Brogan (Hamm). And she has no time or sympathy for crazy stories about magical agreements and alternate realities. The only thing that can save Shrek and restore the world to as it should be is what freed Fiona in the first place – true love’s kiss. This time, however, Fiona doesn’t know Shrek and how can she love someone she doesn’t know?

This is billed as the final film in the series and there is a bit of an air of closure here. Director Mike Mitchell gets to rearrange Shrek’s universe pretty much as he will, but really doesn’t do much with it. One of the trademarks of the Shrek series is the number of pop culture references skewered, but strangely Mitchell chooses to rein that in, preferring to spend more time developing the story. That’s a mixed blessing. Mitchell is taking a chance which gives him points with me, and marks this movie as a bit different than any other entry in the franchise – but at the expense of some of the characteristics that made these movies so special to begin with.

Dohrn is a bit of a revelation here. He worked on the previous Shrek the Third as a writer, story artist and voice actor. He has a more pivotal role here and works it nicely, a bit of a cross between Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride and Jason Lee in The Incredibles. Rumpelstiltskin may well turn out to be the best villain in the Shrek franchise, right up there with Lord Farquaad and the Fairy Godmother.

At its best, Shrek Forever After is as good as anything in the four Shrek movies. However, the movie suffers from being a bit uneven; the moments of genuine hilarity are a bit rarer than in previous efforts and when the movie isn’t at the top of its game, it’s actually a little flat. That lack of consistency is often frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong. The movie has plenty of charm, and fans of Shrek are not going to be disappointed with this. It’s certainly much better than Shrek the Third. Unfortunately, it is far too uneven to rank with the first two movies of the series which may not be the fitting send-off that the series deserves, although again, there are moments that make for quite a graceful exit.

For me, Shrek should be irreverent, funny to both kids and adults and this one doesn’t have those elements to the same degree as Shrek and Shrek 2. It does have enough of those items to allow me to recommend the movie, although if you go in with high expectations you’ll probably be disappointed. I find the best I can do here is damn the movie with faint praise. If you don’t have kids who will absolutely drive you crazy if you don’t take them to see it, you might well wait for this to come out on video and see Toy Story 3 when it comes out instead.

REASONS TO GO: There’s a goodly amount of charm and some of the moments here are among the best in the series.  

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is somewhat uneven and leaves one with the impression that the series has run out of ideas.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of cartoon violence and some scatological humor but otherwise suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dohrn, in addition to voicing Rumpelstiltskin is also credited as being “Head of Story.”

HOME OR THEATER: 3D didn’t add a whole lot to the movie; this would be fine at the multiplex but really, home video would do this just as proud.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Away We Go