**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C
starring Josh Hutcherson, Annasophia Robb, Robert Patrick, Zooey Deschanel
screenplay by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson, based on the book by Katherine Paterson
directed by Gabor Csupo
THE SEEKER: THE DARK IS RISING
starring Alexander Ludwig, Christopher Eccleston, Ian McShane, Frances Conroy
screenplay by John Hodge, based on the book by Susan Cooper
directed by David L. Cunningham
THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras C-
starring Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte, David Strathairn
screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick and John Sayles, based on the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
directed by Mark Waters
by Walter Chaw In the genre of wide-eyed, hyperactive 'tween bullshit, there seems a common thread of missing parents or siblings with all the attendant Oedipal complexities upon which to coat-hanger every genus of just-pubescent, Uncle Joe Campbell shenanigans. (Oh, I get it, it's a metaphor for strange hair, jerking-off, and embarrassing hard-ons--no wonder I identify with these things again as I get older.) More underground than overt adolescent emo rock-star/rapist fantasies like vampirism, the flicks of this type that work--such as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, or the third and fifth Harry Potters, or The Passion of the Christ--incorporate the uncertainty and body horror of growing up with hero/martyr fantasies and, ultimately, the melancholy of childhood's end. The result of a job well done is a piece of enduring, often befuddling, resonance, owing in part to the canny hijacking of some existing folklore or mythology (including comic books) and the gratifying recognition that at the end of all that hormonal devastation is the justification of manhood. Psychosexual psychodrama at least, the new crop of boy-into-man-boy flicks, in the wake of the astounding success of that certain boy wizard (and, shit, probably Shrek's, too), takes a new interest in fantasy as a means to specific ontological ends. For this unabashed fan of Matthew Robbins's idyllic, laden Dragonslayer, it's not entirely bad news.
Then there's Bridge to Terabithia, based on a beloved bit of kid-lit that, like Charlotte's Web, deals with the loss of a quirky friend no one else understands. (It's also a bit of ego-projection not unlike The Wizard of Oz--more on this in the twinning of The Spiderwick Chronicles.) Submitted for your approval is put-upon young Jess (Josh Hutcherson), a sad-eyed Brad Renfr-ite adrift in a small town teeming with bullies. Jess finds misfit affinity with new kid Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), the hippie-dippie daughter of slumming bohos who's frankly too pretty and self-assured to be a credible victim of chief schoolyard bogey Janice (Lauren Clinton). Whatever. Desperate to escape the cruel realities of their lives, Leslie and Jess create fantasy world Terabithia in the wild acreage behind their back-country homes--a place accessible across the titular log span, which will, alas, prove fateful in a cozily, Afterschool Special-hackneyed way. That's the problem with these good intentions.
Bridge to Terabithia is sort of awful, but it goes places most conventional children's entertainments fail to go--going so far, even, as to recognize that one of the heroes' heroic acts (dooming Janice to the torment of Martha Dumptruck) is asshole-ism of the highest order. Compare it to the stunning moment in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that sees Harry discovering his father was the pusher, not the pushee, and consider how the dynamics of the entire series hinge on that one moment of human frailty. Too bad the flick spends so much time in its CGI hinterland, undermining its own declaration of the power of the unseen and the nuance of friendship. It feels like two films--a great one and a terrible one--that want to make money by suggesting other movies that made money. Worse, it simultaneously treasures the fandangos of childhood and dedicates itself to stripping them bare--the cure swallowed whole by the crutch for what ails a generation of stunned nitwits.
That might be the best way to describe the deplorable The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, David L. Cunningham's adaptation of, yes, a beloved kid-lit piece penned, again, by a woman (Bridge to Terabithia was written by Katherine Paterson, Spiderwick by Holly Black--of course J.K. Rowling wrote Potter), Susan Cooper, perhaps explaining why there are prominent girl characters in each of these films who act as catalyzing agents to the maturation of the boy protagonists. It could also say a thing or two about the essential emotional harshness lurking in the subtexts of these pieces (great swatches play like Judy Blume in Anne McCaffrey's frilly jodhpurs--and put a finger to how it is that the big sister in Spiderwick carries the big, phallic piece of iron). Interesting, too, don't you think, that a man helmed each of these adaptations; the resultant mutants are not much of a boy movie and not enough of a girl movie at any given moment. And no matter how these flicks are tarted up, they're always engineered towards the First Kiss.
The Seeker has seventh son of seventh son Will (Alexander Ludwig) receiving the news on the eve of his voice changing that he's the "seeker," gifted with the supernatural (which means in the film's vernacular "unexplained" and "arbitrary") ability to track down six doodads with which blah blah and blah, and he has to do it before the evil Rider (Christopher Eccleston) does, something that would apparently facilitate the End Of The World. On Will's side are a gaggle of ineffectual old people (led by HBO vets Ian McShane and Frances Conroy) who tell Will to beware of The Dark then proceed to stand idly by as Will walks home in the dark, only to be harassed by The Rider and his bebop crow band. Will's quest, though, is of the laziest, most unimaginative variety: whether it's buying a "sign" at a shopping mall vendor stand or teleporting, "Voyagers"-style, against his will into some stupid Barbarian pastoral or moving his mouse over the right item to move on to the next stage. There's no forward momentum granted any of these characters, with only a lot of shouting offered up as an ineffectual camouflage to the picture's complete lack of ambition.
Which is not the same thing that plagues Mark Waters's adaptation of The Spiderwick Chronicles. No, what plagues it is that the inventiveness of Tony DiTerlizzi's illustrations (count me as a huge fan of his The Spider and the Fly) has been transmogrified into a chase picture peopled with emotional and physical ciphers. Prototypical hot mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) moves her three kids upstate after the breakdown of her marriage and engenders, along the way, a lot of anger from troubled pubert Jared (Freddie Highmore--also playing his bookish twin Simon), who doesn't know that daddy (Andrew McCarthy) has left the clan in pursuit of fresher gamine. Big sis Mallory is played by gifted Irish actress Sarah Bolger, who, like Brit Freddie, subdues her sylvan accent into flat, nondescript Yank, effectively losing a commensurate amount of concentration to dedicate to her role.
Highmore, on the other hand, shines as the delinquent and Haley Joel Osments as the nerd, but none of it matters once Jared discovers a mysterious old leather-bound volume in the attic of his new country house, the adorable elf-thing guardian of the same, and the mysterious parallel universe just outside conventional mortal vision. The film soon sacrifices its undercurrent of pain and abandonment to big-budget special effects so discordant and rollercoaster freakish that even a late-act transformation of daddy into arch-Ogre Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte--note, also, that the bully in Terabithia is transformed into an Ogre) does little to recover the little-boy-lost trope and Jared's desire to slay daddy in honour of stupid, sexy mommy. The film had a chance to be a fraught essay on what happens to a family when dad abandons it to its own devices, and there are certainly actors here capable of the weight of that--but Waters is a studied lightweight anti-intellectual and his The Spiderwick Chronicles wilfully disdains gravitas in favour of goop and ILM. That Bridge to Terabithia is looking better and better.
Walden Media, the ultra-conservative force looming in the background of two of these films, shepherds the first, through the auspices of Disney, to home video. Bridge to Terabithia arrives on DVD in an impressively-crisp 1.88:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the exteriors with lush vibrancy but gives short shrift to flesh tones (washed-out) and interiors (farm-y). It's possibly a product of some desire to make the imagination bits more spectacular and the mundane bits more dreary--but this practice of micromanaging the palette in post is getting old. The full spectrum of the DD 5.1 soundstage is used sparingly, rarely coming to life outside the Terabithia parts--with the Ogre's arrival most aggressively exploiting the subwoofer and rear channels. Two full-length yak-tracks decorate the flick, the first--featuring director Gabor Csupo, screenwriter Jeff Stockwell, and producer Hal Liberman--initially distracting due to Csupo's other life as the inspiration for "The Simpsons"' Dr. Nick Riviera while he was the show's executive producer. Bless his heart, by the way, for that tenure and for his stint on "Duckman". Once the novelty of Dr. Nick talking about this film wears off, retreat into the standard yakker garbage complete with plot regurgitation, pocket analysis, and memories of the shoot that could only be interesting to friends and family, if that. Slightly more engaging, if for no other reason than that it's completely unpretentious and charmingly ADD, is the second commentary teaming stars Hutcherson and Robb with producer/chaperone Lauren Levine.
"Keep Your Mind Wide Open" (3 mins.) is a music video with clips from the film set to Robb crooning one of those Disney prefab "High School Musical" ditties that have made a bajillionaire out of Hannah Montana. It's obscenely, indescribably bad--and though it's poor form to take the piss out of a little girl, all bets are off her handlers for permitting this embarrassing bullshit. "Behind the Book" (14 mins.) is a hagiography of author Paterson presented by a librarian with a gift for the purple and a collection of teachers and other educators interspersed with B-roll and junket interviews. Robb regurgitates perfectly-crafted soundbites like a future starlet; whether she ends up a Fanning, a Lohan, or a Foster is the stuff of bookies and odds-makers. "Digital Imagination: Bringing Terabithia to Life" (5 mins.) reminds us for the umpteenth time of the wonders of greenscreen. An interview with Paterson reveals that she herself was not disappointed with the result of literalizing her subtle book of childhood into a special-effects carnival. Fuck you, imagination. The DVD, sheathed in a shiny cardboard slipcover, opens with semi-forced trailers for Underdog, "High School Musical" The Concert, The Jungle Book Platinum Edition, and Meet the Robinsons; menu-accessible previews for the Disney Movie Rewards program, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Friendship Edition, "Hannah Montana", and The Santa Claus 3 cap things off.
Blissfully, Fox's The Seeker (Walden Media's other contribution to this triptych) was mailed to FFC as one of those featureless, unfinished screeners that doesn't even have completed CGI and occasionally lapses into black-and-white to further deter piracy. At least I'm assuming this was the intention, but I guess I don't know for sure.
Not so lucky with The Spiderwick Chronicles, docking on the format in a 2-Disc Field Guide Edition from Paramount that, at first pass, feels bloated with completely superfluous bonuses courtesy, who else, Laurent Bouzereau. The feature itself is presented in 2.35:1 and 16x9 with good, saturated colour that highlights the picture-perfect set design and visual conceptualization. No expense was spared in the production talent (except for the director), and this is demonstrated to wonderful effect by the transfer. Black levels are a touch murky, admittedly, but without distracting enhancements and obvious scrubs, there's a nice, warm, autumnal quality to the image that attracts. The DD 5.1 audio gives sound systems a good if light workout; note the troll chase through the tunnels, especially, for a healthy rumble and interesting spatial dynamics.
The first disc is thankfully yakker-free but does sport "Spiderwick: It's All True!" (6 mins.), providing us a closer look at the best on-screen arcane tome since the Book of the Dead in The Evil Dead movies. It's a beautiful prop, three-dimensionalized and journaled with the obsession of John Doe's volumes of grievances in Se7en. "It's a Spiderwick World!" (9 mins.) finds the rather drab Black droning on about pain and such while the rather irritating DiTerlizzi puts on airs. Check out his website for his amazing illustrations (but turn down the volume on DiTerlizzi's obnoxious narration). "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide" offers an interactive interface of said encyclopedia errata with clickable text/in-movie comparisons that goes hand-in-hand with the "Field Guide In-Move Mode," offering essentially the same thing in clickable icon form as the movie proper unspools. Trailers for Kung Fu Panda and the singles debut of the Indiana Jones Trilogy on DVD introduce the experience while more trailers--for Walden Media's Charlotte's Web, the weird bulls w/udders picture Barnyard, and Bee Movie--finish off the first platter.
Move on to Disc Two for "Meet the Clan" (13 mins.), an extended visit with the cast of the flick in which Waters waxes weird rhapsodic about Freddie Highmore's limpid pools. Parker agrees that Highmore plays twin brothers, and Waters interjects that he's revolutionized twinning technology over the worst example of such in the film as an obvious body double, facing away from us, wrestles with Highmore. "Making Spiderwick" (21 mins.) is a précis on the labours involved in designing the sets for the film, while "Magic of Spiderwick" (14 mins.) is, again, one of those things where you watch people running around in greenscreened warehouses and marvel at how digital artists have filled in the background. There're the standard clips of animators discussing their inspirations (one creepy sort at ILM shows off the horns and bones she's acquired and subsequently points them out on her painting of the ogre), and then there's a lot of praise heaped on the voice actors, who do not, with the exception of Seth Rogan, deign to put in an appearance in support of the piece. It all comes to a head in "Final Word of Advice" (2 mins.), wherein Waters warns in a mock-serious tone that The Spiderwick Chronicles is a documentary. There are something like fourteen clips originally shown on Nickelodeon to promote the film and four deleted scenes that, in at least two cases, were indistinguishable to me from the final product. Trailers for the picture round out the supplementals--which probably could've been squeezed onto one platter at almost no expense to A/V quality. The case is girdled tight with a Velcro thingy that attempts to replicate the wax seal of the fateful book but succeeds mainly in mildly pissing me off. Originally published: July 1, 2008.