The Spiderwick Chronicles

(Sight & Sound, BFI)

Following a hostile response to The Golden Compass (2007), the last big fantasy film, the fleet-footed The Spiderwick Chronicles has enjoyed a much warmer reception in America. The film is produced by the Nickelodeon studio and directed by Mark Waters, who previously made the Lindsay Lohan vehicles Freaky Friday (2003) and Mean Girls (2004). It’s a gutsy, feisty, no-nonsense adventure, aggressive enough to push the bounds of a PG film. The real and imagined worlds are linked together by the frantic action, where a ravening troll can be squished by an oblivious taxi-driver. But reality and fantasy are equally connected in a character-driven allegory. The Gremlins-style mayhem is shown to reflect the frustrations of an angry little boy, harking back to a classic 1953 Jerome Bixby story, “It’s a Good Life.”

The protagonist is played by Freddie Highmore, who’s hardly a stranger to fantasy (he even voiced a shape-changing critter in The Golden Compass). He does especially well here, though, as an all-too-convincing delinquent in the making, stressed by the break-up of his parents. The latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) played down its young hero’s angry explosions, so this fills the gap, presenting fantasy action as a catharsis for children. The boy’s equally distressed mother (Mary Louise-Parker) takes Highmore to an old house surrounded by woods. The conflict is exacerbated by Highmore’s siblings, played by Sarah Bolger and Highmore again, who’s doubled up by special effects in the manner of the Parent Trap films. (It has to be said, though, that the second Highmore feels surplus to the story.)

Before long, the youngsters are assailed by various trolls and monsters, created in CGI but with the boisterousness of the Jim Henson animatronic critters from The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986). However, the beasts have a new edginess – one inflicts a bloody injury early on, and even a “good” magic character first turns up (invisibly) catching and eating a bird. The most amusing inclusion is a Jekyll-and-Hyde character who switches between a cute and retiring sprite (a la Dobby the elf in Harry Potter) and a shouting yob. Unfortunately, while the family arguments in the early scenes worked to raise the uncomfortable tension, the shoutiness of the fantasy characters soon wears thin. The bird-eating critter, voiced by comedian Seth Rogen, is particularly off-putting at times, though he’s central to a funny resolution that’s straight from Puss-in-Boots.

A lot of the fantasy material is familiar – the cursed book which must not be read evokes The Evil Dead (1981) while another CGI-heavy spectacle, Jumanji (1995), had a similar tragic subplot put right at the end. Spiderwick Chronicles, though, is less mechanical and more witty. The monsters’ Achilles heel is tomato sauce, and the one-liners include “Vengeance or death… Hopefully vengeance!” Some sepia sylvan flashbacks open the film up to the half-twee, half-eerie British heritage of Peter Pan and flower-fairies, recently subverted in a horror episode of the BBC series Torchwood. Amid the excitement, there’s time for enchantment (the first appearance of fairies in a flower-bowl) and a challenging shock when Highmore commits patricide.

Although the film’s based on a book series by Tony DiTelerrzi and Holly Black, there’s no obvious sequel hook, with everything wrapped in a tidy 90 minutes. Nonetheless, with Harry Potter nearing its end and a Golden Compass sequel in doubt, Spiderwick Chronicles could be the template for a new, speedier, fantasy cycle.