Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Mark Waters
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn
(PG, 97 min.)
"Knowledge is power." Francis Bacon
A crumbling Victorian mansion, a family in nearly the same state, and an assortment of ogres, trolls, goblins and various other nether creatures whirl you away for a thrilling, fast paced adventure that pulls no punches. The invisible fairy world is full of menace and mayhem, and even the friendly ones take a bit of getting used to.
But let’s start with our humans, first. Great Uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) has just finished his magnum opus: Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, and we glimpse it, filled with sketches of creatures we’d thought lived only on the pages of the Brothers Grimm, or assorted Disney animations. But his ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) isn’t cutesy, like Shrek, nor is he given to the grumpy witticisms of the loveable green one. And he can’t be distracted by falling in love, either, but seems rather fixedly focused on world domination and that sort of thing. And the only object standing between him and it is the field guide.
Some eighty years later, Spiderwick’s great niece, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) having inherited the property, moves in with her three children. It’s in the middle of nowhere, with cabinets curiously overfilled with honey, oatmeal, and tomato sauce, but it sure beats the price of housing in New York, and the suddenly single mom doesn’t have many alternatives.
Strangely enough, Jared (Freddie Highmore), the angry son in denial about his parents’ bust up, is the only one brave and determined enough to awaken to the reality of their new digs. The place is infested with fairies, if that’s what one must call these mostly grotesque creatures, and Jared is fully armed with all their lore, having, of course, ignored the warning affixed to Great, Great Uncle Arthur’s tome, and devoured its contents overnight.
Of course, the fairy world is largely invisible, except through a special circular stone or the special glass monocle devised by Uncle Arthur, so for a while the rest of the family in unconvinced of the peril that surrounds them. The fact that this peril is largely due to Jared’s finding, unsealing, and opening the book, as well as toting it around with him in his backpack, does not detract from the genuine heroism he displays in the aftermath.
Simon (Freddie Highmore as well), his pacifist twin, “isn’t into confrontation,” and thinks their troubles will end if they just turn over the book to Mulgarath, who appears as a seedy, wrinkled old man, Nolte not appearing to have had to spend too much time in makeup for the role. Those of us more attuned to world events don’t have to be told by Hogsqueal, (voiced by Seth Rogers), a benign but easily distracted hobgoblin, that this is all hogwash as Mulgarath and his cohorts aren’t about to leave anyone alive. Just so there is no confusion, no well meaning efforts wasted in holding talks with the gruesome crew, we overhear Mulgarath order his minions to kill the whole family, a task the bulbous toad army – creatures appropriately described as a cross between the Budweiser frogs and the Mucinex beasties – seems to relish.
Fortunately, the Grace family is well armed with just the right ingredients to make lethal bombs for the beasties – those shelves filled with tomato sauce and oatmeal. The brew, bagged up in plastic like so many red water balloons, makes the final showdown as comic as macabre.
While this whimsical tale doesn’t pretend any deep meaning, we come away with a few nuggets. One is the real nature of evil, a force that cannot be ignored or reasoned with, and must be battled against, even if you are merely a boy. We also have that same sense of child empowerment and vision often associated with Mark Twain and later Steven Spielberg. And vengeance, Hogsqueal style, is sweet indeed.
We may also ponder the reason behind our monster fixation – from the early times when these creatures were thought to exist, through the cautionary tales used by parents to ensure obedience from wayward children, to today’s need to create them in film and fiction even when we know they are not real. The Spiderwick Chronicles seems to use this hidden world as a subtle subtext for the conflicts in the family’s real world.
It is no coincidence, for instance, that one of Mulgarath’s shape shifting forms comes a little bit too close to home for the Grace family, and Jared’s shocking treatment of it has some strong symbolic meaning. Arthur Spiderwick’s obsession with his study and his subsequent separation from his daughter also mirror events in the Grace family. Indeed, one might see the entire brutal conflict as acting out the anger and resentment that follows a divorce, Jared slaying his inner demons as he hacks his way past the ogres and goblins.
This scary romp, certainly a bit much for the young ones, is blessed with terrific performances. Jared and his twin are so well delineated by the talented Freddie Highmore that I for one was convinced that actual twins played the two parts, since each boy’s facial characteristics seemed unique. Joan Plowright’s Aunt Lucinda is no longer the “batty aunt” once we meet her in the flesh, her eyes full of warmth, wisdom and regret all at the same time.
*Here are some adult alternatives for a scary ride, a train ride, that is:
Even after the Graces have made all those tomato and oatmeal monster bombs and fed copious quantities of honey to the resident brownie, Thimblestack, I’m sure the cupboards of the Spiderwick mansion are not fully depleted of this standard stock. What to do?
Well, I have a good idea of how to dispose of the oatmeal and honey. These delicious Honey Pot Oatmeal Cookies may even bring a smile to Jared’s scowling face.
Honey Pot Oatmeal Cookies
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup honey
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, softened
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups oats, quick or old-fashioned, uncooked (see Note)
1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup coarsely chopped dry roasted peanuts, optional
In a large bowl, beat peanut butter, honey, sugar and butter with electric mixer until creamy. Add egg, milk and vanilla; mix well. Add combined oats, flour and baking soda; mix well. Stir in raisins and peanuts, if desired.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 7 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove to wire rack; cool completely. Store tightly covered at room temperature or wrap airtight and freeze.
Note: If you use old-fashioned oats, add an additional 2 tablespoons of flour.
Makes about 5 dozen.
Recipe Source: razzledazzlerecipes.com