The Spiderwick Chronicles (Mark Waters, 2008)
Mark Waters' movie adaptation of the children's novel The Spiderwick Chronicles is actually decent entertainment once you get past the insurmountable amount of kitschy eye candy. It's an inevitable flaw. The film is after all being primarily targeted towards children who are sadly slowly being trained to accept anything computer-generated equate to reality. When the movie rights to these children's novels were purchased by different film studios in obvious reaction to the successes of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises, the studio mindset is clearly to drown these stories with computer-generated visuals in anticipation of the plebeian clamor for spectacle. In exchange for the manufactured popularization or commercialization of children's literature, subtle themes are overridden as the emphasis moves from artistry to trite entertainment. We've seen it happen before, where arguably great literature has been converted into theater-filling commodities such as in Andrew Adamson's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) or Chris Weitz's The Golden Compass (2007), film adaptations which are clear populist bastardizations of their respective source materials.
Then there are those rare gems. The most apt example of which is Gabor Csupo's Bridge to Terabithia (2007). The source material, Katherine Paterson's lovely novella of the same title, is about a budding friendship between a boy and a girl who discovers an alternate world while they wrestle with their respective problems. Csupo trusts the material enough to let the narrative flow with the least amount of overt directorial flourishes, and the result is simply rewarding. The film uses computer generated animation so sparingly, a commendable surprise since Csupo started his career with animation, and in the end, becomes a genuinely mature yet undeniably heartfelt film.
There are traces of the same type of endearing maturity in Waters' film, primarily in the familial aches that burden angst-ridden Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore, who also plays Simon, the more timid of the twins). In the film's most sincere moment, Jared, cornered and without any clue of what to do in his family's sudden dire predicament, calls his father through his cellphone. That action by itself encapsulates everything that is happening inside the mind of the boy: the near-faltering trust he has unconditionally given to his absent father, the selfishness that he possesses considering that he opts to escape from his problems leaving his mother and two other siblings to fend for themselves, and that inevitable surrender to the events that have become bigger than his own pains. The father doesn't answer his call, which urges Jared's remaining family to tell him the truth, that his father has left all of them to live with another woman. In that simply staged scene, without any special effects (except of course the doubling of Highmore) or computer-assisted puppetry, we are immediately entreated to an emotional tone that feels right and honest.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not have that elegant simplicity. The subplot involving Arthur Spiderwick (played by a very bored-looking David Strathairn) and his geriatric daughter Lucinda (Joan Plowright) emits a pungent odor of artificial sentimentality. Moreover, there's very little area to wiggle around evocations of real humanity for the characters. It seems that Waters is far too busy toying around toadstools, ogres, goblins, fairies and all those other magical critters contained in Spiderwick's field guide, making sure that each of these fantastical curiosities are brought to cinematic life with the most exquisite of computer rendering talent, plus a slew of wasted voice talents (such as Nick Nolte, who gives a raspy malevolence to the evil ogre Mulgarath; Martin Short, who is indiscernible as "guardian of the field guide" Thimbletack; and Seth Rogen, who provides gluttonous gusto to Hogsqueal). What made the film momentarily special, the persistent struggle of a young boy who is slowly coming to understand the reality of his hugely imperfect family, is simply breezed upon, making the transformation of rebellious and obnoxious Jared to the heroic boy slightly shallow.
As a result, The Spiderwick Chronicles finds itself in a bit of a dilemma. There's no doubt Waters acknowledges those interesting themes that pervade the narrative, as quietly emphasized in the film's early scenes where a much-disgruntled Jared is obviously ostracized by his sister (Sarah Bolger) and his twin brother for misunderstanding their mother's motivations for moving to the Spiderwick Manor. As such, the film has a slight feel of a closeted coming-of-age film. This is the same feel Bridge to Terabithia managed to exploit most successfully, but Waters conveniently neglected in exchange for blank spectacle. I am not sure if it's an overzealous adherence to the fantasy elements of the book that killed that most interesting feel, thus, limiting my interest to a very bare minimum. It's really a matter of taste. Waters chose to tread the path of razzle-dazzle (to the point of such overflowing down to the end credits, a most cringe-worthy sequence of beauteous digitized flowers and mushrooms). I simply prefer children's entertainment to be a simple, eloquent, elegant and most importantly, pertinent.