Today, we have author and columnist Orrin Grey to talk about some more fabulous fae YA–mostly the film version. We’ll have to put this one in the line up for next year. Have we hit on your favorite yet?
Holly Black and The Spiderwick Chronicles
By Orrin Grey
Nobody does fairies better than Holy Black.
Yeah, that’s a pretty bold statement, especially right in the middle of Fae Awareness Month, but it’s probably also true, at least for my money. I first encountered Holly Black’s writing through her YA novels Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside; modern stories that captured all the menace, caprice, and alien allure of the fae exactly as I had always imagined them.
To be fair, Holly Black has since become one of my favorite authors, full stop, and proven that she’s just as adept at writing stories about werewolves, the walking dead, and curse-magic con artists. Still, whenever I think of her, I always think of fairies first.
But in spite of having spent two paragraphs doing so, I’m not actually here to talk about Holly Black’s books, though they’re certainly worth talking about at much greater length. No, today I’m here to talk about The Spiderwick Chronicles movie, circa 2008, based on the kids book series of the same name, written by Holly Black with able assists and numerous illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi. The movie stars Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, and the voices of Seth Rogen and Martin short, and is directed by Mark Waters.
Waters is mostly known for directing romantic comedies and movies like Mean Girls and Freaky Friday (and most recently the forthcoming Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which I try not to think about), so he doesn’t exactly seem like a likely candidate to helm what would become my favorite movie of the year, especially in a year as crowded with interesting films as 2008 was. But that’s just what Spiderwick did.
So what makes it so great? The short answer is that Spiderwick is fun. There’s a big spooky house, complete with hidden rooms and a dumbwaiter. There are sword fights. There’s an underground tunnel. There are lots and lots and lots of monsters. I remember reading a review in my local paper when the movie came out that claimed that kids would leave the theatre swashbuckling with imaginary goblins and yes, that, exactly! What more could you possibly ask for from a movie like this?
Spiderwick is a kids movie—and an adventure movie—unapologetically and all the way, but it also doesn’t require you to give up thinking in order to enjoy it. In spite of a few gags to the contrary, it doesn’t pander. There are themes running through the film, about kids dealing with divorce, about issues of anger, about the power and price of knowledge, etc. They’re there, and they’re important, and they give the film a heft and a solidity that’s lacking in so many movies, for kids and adults both, but they also never suck the pure joy out of watching a house under siege by scores of goblins.
It’s in the integration of these themes, and in the delightful unpredictability of the various creatures, that Holly Black’s writing shines through in the movie the most. Though I was already a fan of her other work by the time the movie came out, I didn’t actually get around to reading the books until after I’d seen the movie, thereby avoiding the usual “the book was better” reaction. Comparing them both now, I think there are places where each is stronger than the other.
The performances are all quite good. Freddie Highmore plays twin brothers Jared and Simon, and the effect is pretty much flawless, to the extent that I’ve seen people online asking if they were, in fact, both played by the same person. Seth Rogen, who had not yet really taken the star turn he has since, turns the character of Hogsqueal from the character most likely to grate on adult audiences to probably the funniest thing in the film.
The creatures often steal the show, in fact. The designs by DiTerlizzi are wonderful, especially the froglike goblins who, in the film’s bravura sequence, stage a full-on attack on the house that would’ve been right at home in a Joe Dante film. If the special effects sometimes don’t quite hold up to the promise of the ideas, then it’s only an occasional setback, and most of the time they’re more than up to the task.
Spiderwick is by no means a perfect movie, but it is a perfectly entertaining one; breezy and fun, but with enough substance that it doesn’t just melt in your mouth. A great movie for anyone who ever dreamed of finding secret passages in their house, or who ever swashbuckled with imaginary goblins (or wanted to).