Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Spiderwick Chronicles, on the Roku Channel

Arthur Spiderwick's field guide to the fairy world is the bestiary to rule all bestiaries. The old eccentric wanted to catalogue his discoveries, but the secrets it holds would be dangerous in the wrong hands. Mulgarath, the shapeshifting ogre, certainly qualifies as the wrong hands. He wants to eat all the humans in the world, basically because he is an ogre. If he successfully revives the baby dragons suspended in amber (like a fantastical Jurassic Park), nothing will stop him. Unfortunately, his primary antagonist is a troubled teen who cannot even count on his siblings in creator Aron Eli Coleite’s eight-episode The Spderwick Chronicles, adapted from Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi’s YA novels, which premieres Friday on the Roku Channel.

Reluctantly, freshly divorced Helen Grace relocates her three kids to Henson, Michigan (it is New England in the books), because of Jared’s “troubles.” He is the bad twin, whereas Simon is the good twin. Their older sister Mallory largely fends for herself. Both resent Jared for forcing them out of Brooklyn, where their deadbeat dad still lives, but Simon still tries his best to defend his brother.

Of course, everyone blames Jared for the strange things that happen in the old Spiderwick manor. Mostly, they are the work of Thimbletack, an annoying winged fairy-beast who lives in the Spiderwick walls. Supposedly, he is a good friend of Helen’s institutionalized Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick, Arthur’s widow. As you might assume, she is not as crazy as she looks.

In fact, she is the one who hid the pages of Uncle Arthur’s field guide around Henson and then charmed herself into forgetting, so Mulgarath could not trick her into revealing the locations. Instead, he lured the Graces to Spiderwick, so they would find them for him.

That gets to one of the biggest problems plaguing Coilete’s adaptation. Arguably, the Graces should be able to foil Mulgarath by simply sitting on their hands and doing nothing. Since the pages are magically protected, they are only vulnerable to Mulgarath once Jared collects them for “safe-keeping.” It is sort of like Mayim Bialik’s awkward criticism of
Raiders of the Lost Ark on The Big Bang Theory, except it is much more glaringly obvious.

That is a shame, because Christian Slater is a lot of fun to watch playing Mulgarath, who has a big, evil DNR to spring on viewers. He is definitely the best part of the series, which is particularly ironic, since a lot of his business is original to Coleite and company (but not the ogre character).

Lyon Daniels will also drive most viewers to distraction as Jared, while Noah Cottrell’s Simon often expresses the audience’s exasperation with him quite aptly. Helen Grace’s unintuitive obliviousness stretches credulity, but Joy Bryant somehow manages to work out some interesting chemistry with Slater (in ways that cannot be revealed). However, the way the character of Thimbletack feels under-developed and often shoehorned into scenes, suggests a good deal of his screentime was cut for budgetary reasons.

On the other hand, the Spiderwick manor looks very cool, in a family-friendly gothic kind of way. Kat Coiro even creates some nicely creepy moments helming the initial episode, but she cannot match them in the second, nor can any of the subsequent directors.

Coleite and the battery of co-writers are not very faithful to the source novels. They largely just created their own alternate Spiderwick story, using the characters. Fans are sure to have their own opinions, but the clear intent was to entertain. There is little political or ideological messaging, beyond some discussions of racism (particularly one of Jared’s former teachers) and a throwaway reference to Michigan militias (which is more about expressing the kids’ sour moods).

Slater chews the scenery as if he were hungry like an ogre, but the fantastical creatures and world-building are very run-of-the-mill. Despite the efforts of Slater and the set designers,
The Spiderwick Chronicles never feels like anything special. It is okay as background noise for your pre-teens, but the series is not recommended as intentional viewing for adults when it starts streaming Friday (4/19) on the Roku Channel.