Monsters in the closet? It is to laugh. If you really want to get paranoid, kids, imagine an invisible world of beasties surrounding your whole house. Shudders! Such is the universe of the rip-roaring fantasy adventure The Spiderwick Chronicles—based on the books by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. The series gets the full treatment from Paramount Pictures: on hand are co-screenwriter John Sayles, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, effects-whiz Phil Tippett, composer James Horner, and Spielberg's go-to editor, Michael Kahn. The result is a smart, scary, satisfying outing for the Harry Potter set.
The film immediately engages the imagination by depicting the creation of "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You," later discovered by one of three children who move with their single mother into a long-dormant family country home. Through trick photography, Freddie Highmore plays the gregarious Jared. He also plays Jared's shier brother Simon ("I don't do conflict"), who along with no-nonsense sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) is a bit slower on the uptake: that the neighborhood is populated with boggarts, sprites, hobgoblins, and ogres. Mary Louise-Parker plays their mother Helen, and Joan Plowright their great-aunt; these two great ladies of the American stage and screen earn their keep. David Strathairn (a regular of Sayles' cinema) plays the man with the answers, the kids' great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick.
The Field Guide is a book with promise of unlocking the doors of perception ("Lift the veil and you will never see the world the same way again"), but also comes with a warning not to use it. This Pandora's Box suggests a metaphor for the world of adult understanding that kids eagerly circle and sometimes dare to transgress.The film is full of fun and scary creatures: goblins with swords, a griffin, a brownie named Thimbletack (voice of Martin Short), and a monstrous ogre named Mulgarath (Nick Nolte). The roly-poly hobgoblin Hogsqueal (voice of Seth Rogen) ups the ante by giving Jared second sight; in a just-right bit of "eww, gross" theatrics, the gift comes in the form of a loogie to the face. The special effects are duly magical, and director Mark Waters ( Mean Girls, Freaky Friday) shows a smooth hand at the reins.
The fantasy is anchored by Spielbergian domestic strife and family healing that will grab kids where they live. While Mom weathers the children's loss and anger over a move following a parental split, Dad (Andrew McCarthy) ironically gets perhaps more sympathy than he deserves (certainly Helen deserves more than she gets, as kids will intuit). For a movie about magical beasts, The Spiderwick Chronicles does an awfully good job of pegging childhood emotional realities, particularly in a context of divorce.
The Spiderwick Chronicles gets a spit-shined audio-visual presentation on Blu-Ray that replicates the filmgoing experience with clarity and immersive detail. Adding to the disc's appeal are a generous complement of terrific bonus features directed and produced by Laurent Bouzereau (the dean emeritus of DVD special features), and with the exception of the TV spots, every blessed one of them is in HD. (The package is mirrored in a 2-disc DVD edition.)
The coolest feature is "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide," which is accessible on its own as a flip-through feature, or by In-Movie Mode, by which you can pause your viewing to read the relevant entries when prompted during playback. Just as depicted in print and in the film, the illustrated Field Guide has useful entries on the creatures and how to deal with them: Boggart, Brownie, Sprite, Goblin, Hobgoblin, Ogre, Griffin, Troll, Seeing Stone, and Protection from Magical Creatures.
"Spiderwick: It's All True" (7:04) is a wide-eyed film intro for kids, with director Mark Waters presenting the universe and characters and affirming that "it's all true."
"It's a Spiderwick World!" (8:44) gathers Waters, co-creator/author/executive producer Holly Black, co-creator/illustrator/executive producer Tony DiTerlizzi, Kathleen Kennedy of The Kennedy/Marshall Company, producer Mark Canton, and producer/screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick to discuss the book's inspirations and the film's origins.
"Spiderwick: Meet the Clan!" (13:54) concerns the actors, how they were chosen, and what they brought to the film, such as the improvisations of Martin Short and Seth Rogen, who we see being put through his paces in recording sessions. The talking heads include Waters, Kennedy, Kirkpatrick, Rogen, Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Sarah Bolger, David Strathairn, Andrew McCarthy, and special effects makeup man Kevin Yagher.
"Making Spiderwick!" (20:53) is an overview of the film's production and use of locations, sets, and practical and special effects. The participants are Waters, Black, DiTerlizzi, Kennedy, Bolger, Highmore, Parker, Kirkpatrick, production designer James Bissell, director of photography Caleb Deschanel, illustrator Meinert Hansen, property master Claire Alary, creature supervisor Phil Tippett, ILM visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman, stunt coordinator Dave McKeown, visual effects supervisor Michael Lantieri, and composer James Horner.
A better-than-usual overview of the design and execution of the special effects, "The Magic of Spiderwick!" (14:23) makes the work genuinely interesting, with comments from Waters, Tippett, Helman, Tippett Studio lead animator Michael Brunet, Tippett Studio visual effects supervisor Joel Friesch, Tippett Studio CG supervisor Russell Darling, ILM visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander, ILM visual effects art director Christian Alzmann, ILM animation supervisor Tim Harrington, and ILM digital artist lead Jean Bolte.
"A Final Word of Advice!" (1:51) allows Waters to deliver a parting admonition to kids, that—although we've looked behind the scenes—it's all just a recreation of reality, so they should be prepared for boggarts and ogres and such.
A nice selection of Deleted Scenes (8:14 with "Play All" option) includes "Mom & Jared" (:59), "Boys in Bedroom" (2:13), "Messy Kitchen" (3:01), and "Meet Lucinda" (2:01).
The two Theatrical Trailers for the film are dubbed "Good v. Evil" (2:04) and "Secrets" (2:32). We also get a suite of Nickelodeon TV Spots (5:04 with "Play All" option): "A Guide to Seeing The Spiderwick Chronicles" (:30), "Cinema Spy" (1:02), "Confessional Jared" (:31), "Confessional Mallory" (:30), "Field Guide—Tomato Sauce" (:29), "Field Guide—Seeing Stone" (:29), "Field Guide—Creatures" (:30), "What If You Had a Seeing Stone" (:31), and "The Spit Spot" (:32).
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