The family film The Spiderwick Chronicles has quite the pedigree. It was produced by superstar team Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, who have assembled the best in the business: Michael Kahn, Spielberg’s regular editor; ILM for the special effects; the excellent music is by go-to composer James Horner; the cinematography is by Caleb Deschanel, who shot that greatest of family films, The Black Stallion ; the creatures are animated by Phil Tippett Studios, who invented the dinosaur motion in Jurassic Park ; and the cast boasts such stalwarts as David Strathairn and Joan Plowright, and Freddy Highmore, of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory , as not one, but twin thirteen-year-old brothers. Everyone acquits himself well, and if they’re slumming, you wouldn’t know it.
My question is this. Why go to all the trouble of spending an estimated $90 million and putting together a triple-A team if it’s going to be led by the guy who directed the remake of Freaky Friday ? There isn’t one thing wrong with Mark Waters direction; there just isn’t one thing particularly right. He pulls back from the potential ugliness of the film, not wanting to look at what needed to be explored. He provides a woods, but they aren’t mysterious.
There’s a foundational problem in Hollywood right now; the wrong people are getting to direct. It’s been that way since commercial and music video directors started getting recruited for feature films a decade ago. Why should Andrew Adamson, based on his work on Shrek , be entrusted with the Narnia franchise? Why should Matt Reeves, who had only directed the TV show Felicity , be given the special effects-heavy monster movie Cloverfield ? In that case, Reeves himself questioned the reasoning with producer J.J. Abrams. He was told, “We know you can handle the character stuff. The special effects, anyone can do.”
Well, sure, anyone can direct the special effects pipeline if he just puts in an order and lets the animators go to town. And that’s what’s been happening since computer graphics took over the movies in the ‘90s: there’s nobody at the helm, and the animators, supremely talented galley slaves, can’t be expected to steer. Think of what Guillermo del Toro could have done with this film. He’s a director who struggled for two decades to get where he is today, a developed artist who knows exactly what he’s doing.
So The Spiderwick Chronicles is another fantasy film that doesn’t feel so fantastic. Its hum-drum goblins, which look like overfed toads with sharp teeth, come off like CG blobs. The villain could be a cousin to the cave troll from The Lord of the Rings , except for those blessed moments when he’s in human form, and played by a dead-eyed Nick Nolte.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is based on five book cycle by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, unread by me. But unlike the Potter novels, to which they are inevitably compared, the books don’t bloat when you get to number four. The film’s writers have crafted a trim reduction that’s just right for the cinema.
In a nutshell: The Grace family is composed of brothers Jared and Simon, and teenage sister Mallory, played by Sarah Bolger, who never seems to put down her fencing sword. The mom, Helen, Mary Louise Parker, is in a disintegrating marriage; she and the kids are relocating to a big spooky house in the woods.
Jared stumbles upon an old book in the attic; he opens it; various fantastic critters are awakened in the forest, invisible unless they want to be seen. Some are pretty, some are friendly, and some are alarming. The usual stuff.
Luckily, there is a circle of mushrooms around the house which creates an invisible protective barrier across which the faeries cannot pass. That circle represents the greatest missed opportunity in the film. It should have been mined for its symbolism: the protective skin surrounding the nuclear family. Late in the film, the father permeates the membrane, and Simon holds him off with a knife. It sounds as painful as the identical scene in the classic Shoot the Moon , but it isn’t developed.
I know, I know, this is a PG film for kids. But nobody is more attuned to disturbances in the family than kids; the Walt Disney Company has built an empire on it. If you’re going to mount a major production, give it to someone less literal, with a proven track record in image-making. And make sure he isn’t afraid of the dark.