Harry Potter Spawned Reams of Imitators. One Had the Potential to Be a Franchise.
Delicate and otherworldly, this 2008 fairy tale delivered a cracking adventure.
The 2000s were a hallowed time for family fantasy movies. In the wake of Harry Potter, any and all children’s books were ripe for adaptation. Some, like Twilight, were massively successful. Others, like Nickelodeon’s ill-fated A Series of Unfortunate Events adaptation, starred Jim Carrey.
15 years ago, as the fad was starting to wind down, Nickelodeon took one last try at adapting a hit book series into a family adventure saga. The result may not have been the cash cow the network was hoping for, but it’s one of the best examples of the genre’s golden age.
The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the hit book series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, had the perfect setup for riding Harry Potter’s coattails. Directed by Mark Waters, who helmed Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, it told the story of three kids who move into an old estate and find a field guide to magical creatures that sends them on a fantastical journey.
Freddie Highmore, best known for playing Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Good Doctor’s Good Doctor, plays double duty as Jared and Simon Grace, twins who move into the old and spooky Spiderwick Estate with their sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and recently divorced mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker).
There, they discover an old field guide to magical creatures written by their ancestor, Arthur Spiderwick, that teaches them about a whole new world filled with fairies, sprites, and shape-shifting ogres. With the help of Thimbletack (Martin Short), a brownie sworn to protect the book, Jared witnesses a group of goblins kidnap Simon and treks outside the house’s protective mushroom circle to save him, armed with nothing more than the handy tome and a seeing stone that reveals the hidden world around him.
While clearly trying to channel Harry Potter’s whimsy, a major difference is baked into Spiderwick’s premise. While Harry, the mythical Boy Who Lived, had been a Chosen One since he was in diapers, Jared takes his fate into his own hands. He doesn’t have greatness thrust upon him, but puts aside his initial fears to achieve it for its own sake.
One of the biggest selling points of the original books was the unique illustration style of Tony DiTerlizzi, best known for his Magic: the Gathering artwork. DiTerlizzi’s work combines the whimsical and grotesque in macabre and surprising ways, giving each character a playful yet fierce look. That careful balance is translated onscreen, where all the critters our heroes encounter look like they belong in their own world. Years later, the effects don’t look seamless, but that’s okay; the seam that’s exposed as one world drifts into another is what makes the fairy world so fascinating.
As the story evolves, Spiderwick reveals itself to be more than the typical low-stakes fare you’d expect from a 2008 family movie. Mulgarath, the villainous ogre voiced by Nick Nolte, is the perfect fairy tale villain, all tricks and disguises as he manipulates Simon into bringing him the book so he can use its secrets for evil. As the stakes are raised and the action grows increasingly morbid, the movie distinguishes itself from its peers with a tale that’s otherworldly enough to feel unique, yet still relatable enough to connect to its young audience.
The Spiderwick Chronicles was well-reviewed and managed to scrape up a decent box office haul, but it didn’t launch the franchise Nickelodeon had hoped for. The only problem with a golden age is that movies that would shine in other years are buried by other projects, and Spiderwick was reduced to a hidden gem of the 2000s. It lacked the cultural resonance of Harry Potter, but it had a strong vision worthy of being remembered.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is now streaming on HBO Max.