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Review: ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ Tries to Replicate the Magic

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Over twenty years ago, Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi made their mark in young adult fantasy with five books collected as The Spiderwick Chronicles. Nickelodeon Movies made a film adaptation with a basic plot that included elements from all five titles, and this series does the same here. Packed into eight episodes around 45 minutes each, this is a much more modern twist on the best-selling series. After bouncing around a couple of times and finally being sold off by Disney for cost-cutting purposes, it found a new home on The Roku Channel.

[Warning: mild spoilers for the series discussed below.]

The Spiderwick Chronicles is darker than the source material

When I read The Spiderwick Chronicles books twenty years ago, it evoked the same feelings I had with other fantasy-based literature, being a chance to escape into a world of creatures, faeries, and ogres. While this series still includes those things, it does some heel turns on who the villains truly are, and sometimes it works out for the best.

It’s Ferngully inspired, in the sense that humans are impeding on land previously occupied by the aforementioned mythical beings. The twist is admirable, as few things on this planet are as devious as humans can be towards one another. The focus is shifted from humans against nature to human-vs-human and explores a couple of tough topics such as mental health and racism. 

Along with the tone shift, there’s a bump in the ages, putting the Grace children in their teenage years. Jared (Lyon Daniels) and his fraternal twin Simon (Noah Cottrell) are now 15 years of age (up from 9 in the books) and Mallory (Mychala Lee) looks to be a senior in high school.

Jared is the one saddled with the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and it’s this struggle that gets him kicked out of school. This spurs his parents Helen (Joy Bryant) and Richard (Rhys Coiro) to divorce and leads them to move into the Spiderwick estate. Richard’s role is expanded to show how inept he is as a father, a fair critique of parenting in the modern age.

The Grace family, (L to R) Joy Bryant as Helen, Mychala Lee as Mallory, Lyon Daniels as Jared, Noah Cottrell as Simon
The Grace family in The Spiderwick Chronicles, (L to R) Joy Bryant as Helen, Mychala Lee as Mallory, Lyon Daniels as Jared, Noah Cottrell as Simon. (Roku)

 Helen is fleshed out as a newly single divorced mother who contends with a couple of strong personalities in her children, burdened with effort in maintaining peace with Jared. She’s a well-written character with a brilliant performance delivered by Bryant. The expansion of her role in the Grace family was one thing I enjoyed, while understandably infuriated by Jared’s “antics”, she still deeply believes in all her children. Getting a further understanding of the divorce was a highlight, since this adaptation is vastly more mature than its source material. 

The CGI and sets were outstanding in the new Roku series

If there’s one thing I could focus on and nothing else, it would be the visuals of the series. Thimbletack didn’t get much screen time, but when he did, it was a marvel to behold within the Spiderwick estate. Speaking of, the estate was incredible and was alive in every sense of the word. It actually felt like an estate with a massive foyer and tree centered within it, which was also pivotal to the plot. The pages of the field guide were meticulously crafted

If a green screen was used in The Spiderwick Chronicles series, I genuinely could not tell because the blend of magic and reality was entirely seamless. The creatures, monsters, and effects featured throughout were top-notch, and towards the end, some mushroom-infected people were so well done that I was entirely grossed out due to the realism. If the infected in The Last of Us stirred your trypophobia as it did for me, this show will give you the willies. When it came to the softer side of fantasticism, such as fairies or unicorns, they were very life-like although brief in appearances. 

Good performances from the cast of The Spiderwick Chronicles

Every casting was well selected, but two stood out to me, Charlayne Woodard (Secret Invasion) as Lucinda Spiderwick and Christian Slater as Dr. Dorian Brauer. Woodard is the great-aunt to the Grace children and is believed to have lost her mind for her belief in fairies, ogres, and trolls.

Slater is the doctor that Helen hires to help deal with Jared’s mental health issues, not knowing that Dr. Brauer manipulated events to summon the Grace family. Assisting Dr. Brauer is Calliope (Alyvia Alyn Lind), disguised as a Fetch which is a portent of death. 

Charlayne Woodard as Lucinda Spiderwick in The Spiderwick Chronicles
Charlayne Woodard as Lucinda Spiderwick in The Spiderwick Chronicles. (Roku)

Other key castings include rising star Jack Dylan Glazer (Shazam!, Shazam! Fury of the Gods) as Thimbletack, the tiny boggart that helps and hurts the Grace family at the whims of his anger. Within Meskawki Psychiatric Hospital, where Lucinda was committed, Jared meets Emiko (Momona Tamada) and Hatcher (Hunter Dillon). Emiko is a pathological liar, while Hatcher deals with body dysmorphia and wears a plastic helmet over his head throughout the show. Tamada and Dillon are endearing sidekicks to Jared and admirably stand by his side even with everything the character inflicts upon them.

The story deviations from the book are a hindrance at times

The story lacks the lovable charm that I found within the pages of The Spiderwick Chronicles, although the changes in character make sense for Jared. He is impossible to like. On various occasions, he turns to violence against his family and “friends”. The Grace family has one rule “Don’t be a d-bag”, yes, that is exactly how they declare their number one rule. But I guess saying things repeatedly just never clicks, as Jared is entirely a d-bag during the whole season, even when his relatives try to sympathize with him and his mental health. Rarely have I seen a protagonist that didn’t deserve as many chances as him. His mother’s patience is simply astounding. 

The lack of exploration of not just the town of Henson, but of the field guide also left quite a negative impression. Sure, we see some creatures and even interact with a few, but there’s hardly any sense of understanding them. The pages of the field guide are barely read, so there’s no chance to delve into the creatures which are a huge part of the story. At most, they’re just tools for the human characters to advance or be tricked to accomplish the same objectives. I found myself wanting Mulgarath to succeed in wiping out the entire town, since the only person worth saving would be Helen. 

Christian Slater as Dr. Dorian Brauer in The Spiderwick Chronicles
Christian Slater as Dr. Dorian Brauer in The Spiderwick Chronicles. (Roku)

Final thoughts on The Spiderwick Chronicles

Going into this, I wanted to love everything about it, the tone shift, the castings, and the modern elements introduced. If not for the brilliant work from Slater and Woodard, I’d not recommend this series at all. It doesn’t help that it’s been pushed to a streaming service that has ad breaks. The final episode does set up for an interesting second season, if, that ever happens, and I just don’t see it being even a possibility. 

Some may wonder why Disney opted to shop it around to other networks, and my best guess is that it might be too dark compared to Percy Jackson and the Olympians. There’s also content in the series that might be sensitive to younger viewers, and some swearing that parents would be less than thrilled with. Optics on mental health have ballooned in the past decades, and I’m not sure how well this was handled, some may easily take offense to the portrayals. I’m no psychologist, but at times it just felt rough and failed to give more than a singular view into disorders. 

The Spiderwick Chronicles will release all 8 episodes on April 19 on the Roku Channel , and can be viewed on Roku devices or TVs, on iOS and Android devices, Amazon Fire TVs, Samsung TVs and Google TVs and other Android TV OS devices.

Have you read the series or watched the 2008 film? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or join our official Discord and join the conversation!

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Anthony Flagg

Howdy! I cover a variety of topics for The Cosmic Circus. My favorite topics to write about are video games, Pokemon and music. Drop me a line on Twitter! @redovah_

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