With all the mediocrity in so much of children's and family entertainment it's refreshing when a film like "The Spiderwick Chronicles" can emerge to remind us that the recipe for making a quality kids' movie is still in the Hollywood filmmaker's cookbook and still gets pulled out every now and then.
All of us have treasured films from our childhood, tapes that got put into the VCR over and over again back before DVD. And if you take a look at some of the best of them now, and start to think about them and take them apart a little, certain common elements emerge. "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is loaded with these family film standards that have worked in the past and continue to work today.
Recently I got the chance to rediscover one of my childhood favorites, the animated adventure "The Secret of NIMH." Made about 25 years ago by director Don Bluth ("An American Tail," "The Land Before Time") the film tells the story of Mrs. Brisby, a field mouse who must find a solution to a deadly problem. Her son Timothy is sick with pneumonia but she must move her family from their home before the farmer plows his field. Desperate for help she is gradually led to the mysterious rats that live in the rose bush.
It's a very different film from "The Spiderwick Chronicles" but both possess similar elements that, when properly executed, can create a family film that's exciting, entertaining, and moving for both children and adults.
The first element is a broken family, often missing a father figure. "The Spiderwick Chronicles" begins with the Grace family moving to the Spiderwick estate, an old house located out in the country. Helen Grace (Mary Louise Parker) has just split up with her husband and she has taken the three children, twins Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore of "Finding Neverland" and "August Rush") and their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger.) While Simon and Mallory are supportive of their mother Jared is not, angrily refusing to speak to her and anticipating his father's arrival to get him. For "The Secret of NIMH" Mrs. Brisby is a widow, her husband Jonathan's death wrapped in the unknown.
The second element is a mysterious world for the protagonists to discover. What's especially important, though, is that this world is only explored to a degree. By the time the film ends you're left longing for additional details - material often to be found in the film's source material. This is great for a child, often allowing the film to be the catalyst for hours of make-believe and creativity. Things are strange at the old Spiderwick house. There are strange noises and items disappear. The inquisitive Jared begins to explore the house and he stumbles upon a book written by Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn,) the previous owner of the house. The book is filled with information about faeries, goblins, and all kinds of mythical creatures. Over the course of the film we'll be introduced to all kinds of classic magical beings, none of which will be explained completely (nor done in a predictable, clichéd fashion.) In "The Secret of NIMH" it's the world of the rats that's the deeply fascinating magical mystery. The rats' origins and the life they've created for themselves are incredibly engaging but never quite explained as much as we'd like.
The third element is a very clear, immediate threat. Jared and the other Grace children learn quickly that the book is deeply desired and very dangerous. It is sought by the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) since the information in it could allow him to take over the world. Upon learning of the book's location - Jared unknowingly reveals it when he takes it out of the house - Mulgarath sends his army of goblins to the house, which is temporarily protected by a magical circle. "The Secret of NIMH" finds this immediate danger in the need for Mrs. Brisby to save her family from the plow, an ever-present threat and seemingly insurmountable problem.
The fourth element is moderately intense scares. This is obviously one of the more controversial ingredients in the recipe since parents are sensitive about their young children getting frightened. Nevertheless it's crucial and ultimately rewarding. Monsters, darkness and a little bit of violence are necessary. "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is filled with it. The goblins and some of the other creatures are truly menacing. I was almost surprised - pleasantly - at just how far the filmmakers were willing to go. "NIMH" is also loaded with very dark sequences. Particularly memorable are the Great Owl, the farmer's cat Dragon, the rat guard Brutus, and the lust for power of the film's antagonist Jenner.
Fifth is the humor and comic relief, usually just one character dedicated to this function is necessary. For "Spiderwick" it's mainly Hogsqueal, an easily-distracted, bird-eating, double-snouted hobgoblin voiced by Seth Rogen (an actor known for the more adult comedies "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" whose inclusion in the film is a delightful surprise.) "NIMH" features Dom Deluise as the crow Jeremy in this all-important job. It's this stuff that acts to balance out the more serious parts.
Sixth is a certain tragedy - nothing too overwhelming but certainly touching - that hangs over the whole movie. The story of Arthur Spiderwick and the life of his daughter Lucinda adds this important component. In "NIMH" it's the death of Mrs. Brisby's husband Jonathan and the origins of the rats.
Seventh, and perhaps most important for parents and those of us who return to childhood favorites as adults, is some thematic substance. The movie can't just be entertaining, it has to explore somewhere and say something, preferably in a complex, ambiguous way instead of simplistic moralizing. In this case both "Spiderwick" and "NIMH" venture into very similar territory, namely the painful, difficult truism that knowledge and its pursuit have consequences. There is a price for Arthur Spiderwick and Jared for their explorations into the magical world. Likewise, the rats of NIMH are forced to face the responsibilities of knowledge. In both films, though, these themes are only threads in the blanket, there's much more to both pictures than these issues.
Overall "Spiderwick" is quite good but there are a few noticeable flaws, though nothing horrifically damaging. The acting is a bit sub-par, especially during the beginning in what turns out to be a rather rocky, awkward start before the film really finds its feet once the magical creatures show up. Highmore's performance as both twins is also less than perfect, though this is somewhat forgivable given the challenge of two roles and having to act against oneself in some scenes. While he's a talented actor his work her does not match my favorite of his roles as the voice of the daemon Pantalaimon in "The Golden Compass." The villain is also somewhat generic and a bit less menacing than is to be desired with Nolte being incredibly underused. This is perhaps compensated with his minions being very effective. All in all, though, the film's weaknesses are fairly incidental and fail to detract too much from a satisfying experience.
Some props also deserve to go to director Mark Waters, bouncing back from the decent but forgettable "Just Like Heaven" and clearly topping his previous successes "Mean Girls" and the "Freaky Friday" remake. "Spiderwick" is clearly a step to the next level and strong evidence of incredible filmmaking potential. I think his best work is yet to come. With "Spiderwick" he cements his reputation for being able to deliver smart, creative, satisfying mainstream Hollywood films.
I imagine that the ingredients listed for the successful family film should be pretty familiar and they could be easily pointed out in other films, whether it be "E.T.," "Beauty and the Beast," or "Narnia." Really they could probably even be traced to mythology - no doubt Joseph Campbell diagramed it all methodically out in his dozens of books - or even just the qualities of good storytelling in general. Ultimately it all points to something very simple: the makers of children's films are usually most successful when they try and make something with some complexity and sophistication. Kids are smart and will pick up on things of which they might otherwise not be expected. And when they're older they'll be glad that they can return to old friends like "NIMH" and still cherish and appreciate them and anticipate sharing them with their future children.