It's a children's fantasy film, but refreshingly it's not a cute one. In fact it's rather impressive in how horrible it's prepared to make its heroes, with our heroes being a squabbling broken family who don't believe each other's stories, don't have any interests in common and don't really even appear to be friends. Soon enough they became likeable and won me over, but I'm still surprised at how far the film was prepared to make them go to get there.
There are four protagonists: two twins Jared and Simon, their big sister Mallory and their mother, recently separated from their father. They used to live in New York, but now they're driving into the middle of nowhere to take up residence in the so-called Addams Family mansion. Personally I thought it looked pretty.
Anyway, when we first meet our hero, Jared, he's being the biggest jerk of the lot. In the car he's sullen and refuses to speak, then later he's explaining that he hates it here and that his father will be coming for him tomorrow. Dream on, laddie. When his sister starts hitting him for being a jerk, we're on her side. Naturally Jared's the one who first starts seeing weird things and getting attacked by goblins, but the others don't believe him and blame it all on him even when their version of events is obvious nonsense. Mallory says he stole her fencing medal, for instance, even after she herself knocks a hole in a wall and finds the missing medal inside.
Didn't I mention that Mallory's a fencer? Handy, eh? She's exactly the kind of big sister you'd want not to have except when being attacked by killer toad-people. She's obnoxious but also fairly badass, actually.
The least convincing of the three is Jared's brother, Simon. He's the nerdy one, with dialogue like "I don't do conflict" and "It has that old people smell... just an observation, not a judgement." Do any children talk like that? Well, maybe he reads a lot of books. Certainly he's the one who knows words like 'dumb waiter' and gets abused by Mallory with "Spock, you're the pride of the Federation." However what I never suspected when watching the film and was dumbfounded to discover on looking up the film on the internet was that Jared and Simon are played by the same child actor, Freddie Highmore. Never once did the film lead me to suspect that it was doing something like this.
Highmore actually distinguishes his two roles so clearly that I wasn't sure if they were even meant to be twins and I'd only sometimes notice that they even looked similar. My estimation of him has just gone way, way up. This is a seriously good actor. I see he's been doing films for a good decade now, including The Golden Compass and Charlie and the Chocolate Factor. He's English, by the way, although you'd never guess from his accent. Even apart from him, though, the acting's pretty solid all round. I didn't buy one particular reaction shot from Sarah Bolger's Mallory, but otherwise everyone does good work.
Anyone else? Whoops, yes, there's Arthur Spiderwick, snatched by faeries eighty years ago, and his daughter who's been living in a nuthouse ever since. She's not mad. She just made the mistake of telling people about the little people. This side of the story adds a lot of flavour and is the reason our heroes are having all this trouble now, but I have a feeling it could have been even stronger than it is. They've got Joan Plowright as the now-elderly daughter, you know.
All this is important. Yes, there's fantasy stuff, but the film's built on a solid foundation of family strife that of course will end up in everyone starting to learn to love each other again. Occasionally this threatens to descend into Hollywoodiness, but fortunately the film's been nasty enough that the journey to reconciliation feels real and earned. Anything involving Highmore will usually be good. He has to stab his father in the chest with a knife (don't ask) and gets a touching scene towards the end. However there's a "visible from a mile off" reconciliation at the end with some eye-rolling dialogue that could only come from Americans. No offence, but that's what the movies have taught me.
For a while I was reminded of Labyrinth
, but the difference is that these fairies and goblins live in the real world. Only once do our heroes go to fairyland and that only lasts for six minutes. I was surprised that they managed to escape afterwards, by the way. No, for the most part this is the story of our squabbling heroes trying not to be killed and eaten by the rampaging goblin hordes of Mulgarath, played in one scene by Nick Nolte. There's a MacGuffin, which is a guide to the fairy world written eighty years ago by Arthur Spiderwick. If Mulgarath gets it, he'll know all the secrets of everything and he'll be able to kill... well, everything. What's more, you believe he'd do it. In his natural form, he's a gigantic demon who's merely a tad discouraged by being run over by a truck. "Did I hit somebody?" Yes, thank you."
His hordes are similarly unpleasant, which I liked a lot. Good grief, there's a lot of them. They're violent too, drawing blood when they bite you. The climactic attack upon the house reminded me of Poltergeist, believe it or not. This may be a film with fairies and goblins, but it is absolutely not twee. Our heroes are in appalling danger and there's one shot of violence that made even me blink. A child cuts a hand off with a cleaver. It's a goblin hand, yes, but I do hope no one imitates that. However the upshot of all this is a full-blooded children's film that's watchable for adults too and can't be accused of pulling its punches.
"Oh sh--" BOOM!
The special effects must be better than I thought they were, given Highmore's twin role. Nevertheless I didn't always buy the CGI shots. Someone's spent a lot of money on this, but it's not another Lord of the Rings. The obscene toad-like monsters were great, but it's the friendlier creatures that didn't always convince me. The ones that speak can be a bit cartoonish and rubbery, while the griffin looks impressive but didn't seem to be sharing the same space as Highmore in the scene where he strokes it. However on the upside, they're energetic little buggers (feed me!) and the hobgoblin gets some funny dialogue. "Vengeance or death, hopefully vengeance." "Must warn the boy. Or maybe I'll hide. I like this plan."
Apparently this is an adaptation of a children's book series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi. Yes, the entire series, not just the first book. I haven't read any of them, but condensing them like this seems to have worked.
This is quite an impressive film. It's obviously of its genre, but it also has bite and a strong narrative. It dabbles in some risky tropes, e.g. "no one believes our hero", but I smiled at the payoff to this when Denial Mum finally saw her first goblin. That was a funny bit. It also has a funny way of killing Mulgarath. As children's fantasy, I thought this was terrific. As a story of its troubled family, I thought it flirted with treacliness ("The last thing I said to Mum was 'I hate you'") but for the most part that worked too. Don't expect it not to be a children's film, but it's a good one.
What intrigues me most though is that apparently there's a 107-minute unrated version. What did they feel was too extreme for cinemas? Jason cutting a man's head off with piano wire?