Following the success of Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy (the third installment of which went on to become only the second entry in that elite “Billion Dollar Club”), it seemed like every studio wanted to jump on the fantasy-adventure bandwagon. And increasingly, the inspiration for such films has seemed to come from books targeted primarily at younger readers. The more popular franchises to arise from this trend were the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia series. (The seventh and eighth Potter films are in theaters now and next summer, and the third Narnia film hits in December.)
But for those tired of the big franchises and looking for more one-off adventures, there is a pair of films that were produced by Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies in the past decade that offer plenty of thrills and spills, and entertaining journeys into fantastical realms. They are clearly targeted at family audiences, but it is my opinion that there’s plenty to enjoy in them for adults as well, and I like them both more than the average Potter or Narnia film. So step into the Reel Rumbles ring for a battle of fantastic proportions as we take on The Spiderwick Chronicles vs. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
In The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008), young twins Jared and Simon Grace (both played by Freddie Highmore) and their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) move into a creepy old house with their divorced mother (Mary-Louise Parker). When Jared discovers a field journal written by the house’s previous occupant, his great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), he encounters an entire world of fantastical creatures that exist just outside of our perception–and he and his family are soon plunged into mortal danger.
In the awkwardly-titled Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004), the recently-orphaned Baudelaire children–creative inventor Violet (Emily Browning), avid reader Klaus (Liam Aiken) an dedicated biter Sunny (played by twin toddlers Kara and Shelby Hoffman)–are left to the clueless mercies of Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), who, while managing their wealthy parents’ estate, leaves them in the care of their distant relative, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Of course, the resourceful children soon discover that Count Olaf is intending to kill them so he can inherit their fortune, and soon one calamitous circumstance after another befalls them. And as they attempt to save their own skins, the adults in their lives remain mostly clueless to their plight.
Both stories are based on beloved children’s books, like Harry Potter, but unlike the bigger franchise, each of these films is based (at least in part) on several books in their respective series. Certainly, both are nearly as dark as any Potter story. (Instead of evil wizards, here you simply have invisible goblins and ogres, or greedy and decidedly crazy distant relatives trying to kill the protagonists.) Each film skips briskly from one danger-filled scenario to the next, and at only about an hour and a half, sans credits, neither outstays its welcome. In Spiderwick, the young heroes must seek out the one person who can help them defeat the evil ogre Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte); in Lemony Snicket, the young heroes must stay one step ahead of their evil uncle and find a way to escape his murderous grasp.
From a story standpoint, it almost comes down to a matter of personal preference, as they are very nearly equal. Round one is a draw.
The Spiderwick Chronicles gives us preteens battling ogres and goblins, but also does a good job of presenting a family dealing with a messy divorce. The main protagonist, Jared Grace, rebels against his longsuffering mother, wanting nothing more than his absent father to come take him away. And as his older sister, Mallory, and his twin, Simon, try to help keep the peace, the interactions between the family members help to ground the fantastic goings-on in reality. Freddie Highmore, of course, gets the best bits in his dual role, but that’s how it should be.
In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire children bounce from one calamitous episode to another, giving the movie a very episodic feel. There are three distinct acts–which makes sense, as the film was adapted from three of author Daniel Handler‘s books. It’s tied together nicely through the device of having “Lemony Snicket” (Handler’s pen name) himself narrate the tale (even if he is voiced by an “impostor” named Jude Law). But the structure of the story is such that it proceeds somewhat in fits and starts; Spiderwick was also adapted from elements of several books, but feels much more like a single, cohesive narrative.
Both scripts deserve kudos for not being blatant sequel setups, like so many other films these days. The fact is, Spiderwick is a little more conclusive in this regard: Mulgarath is defeated, and the heroes are safe at the end of the film. Lemony Snicket leaves the villain’s fate deliberately vague, so it’s obvious the creators were hoping that sequels might happen, but it still works as a standalone story.
In the end, as Spiderwick feels much more like a single narrative and has a more conclusive ending, it wins this round, 10-9.
The Spiderwick Chronicles features recognizable names in the adult supporting roles: David Strathairn is effective as Arthur Spiderwick, the man whose observations about the fantastical realms cause all the problems for the film’s heroes. Joan Plowright is his daughter, who has spent the eighty years since his disappearance in a mental hospital because no one believes her stories of goblins and ogres. Mary-Louise Parker is well-cast as a divorced mother of three doing her best to make a new life for her family when all the craziness happens. Martin Short and Seth Rogen do entertaining voice work. And the filmmakers wisely allow Nick Nolte–as the film’s shape-shifting villain, Mulgarath–to have one scene in the flesh before he spends the rest of the time voicing a scary CGI ogre. (If anything, he’s more frightening in person.)
But the adult cast of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events has these actors beat.
Jim Carrey absolutely owns the role of Count Olaf. There’s no way anybody else could have played that part, and it’s one of the best outlandish roles in the actor’s career. Add to that colorful support by the likes of Meryl Streep, Timothy Spall, Billy Connolly, Catherine O’Hara, Jude Law (giving voice to “Lemony Snicket” himself), an uncredited Dustin Hoffman, and others, and the cast of Snicket would seem to have this one locked up.
But the success of a film like this rests heavily on the shoulders of its child actors. Both films actually deliver on this front, but Emily Browning and Liam Aiken–as Violet and Klaus Baudelaire–have little to do in Snicket beyond looking morose at the death of their parents, terrified of Count Olaf, and resourceful in escaping his traps. They’re effective, but limited by the constraints of the story. Even at the “happy” ending, they’re subdued.
It’s Freddie Highmore, fantastic in the dual role of twins Jared and Simon Grace, who earns high marks for Spiderwick. He portrays very distinct personalities: Simon is the peacemaker, Jared is angry at the world. And his scenes with Sarah Bolger–as the older sister, Mallory, who tries to hold everything together–are well-played.
In the end, the younger cast of Spiderwick trumps that of Snicket, while the adults do the opposite. We must pit the two best-cast actors–Highmore and Carrey–against each other, and the fact that the Count Olaf role fits Jim Carrey like a glove means that this round goes to Lemony Snicket: 10-9.
The Spiderwick Chronicles is less about creating a new and fantastic world, and more about placing new and fantastic creatures in our world in a convincing manner. On this front, director Mark Waters (previously best known for the Lindsay Lohan vehicles Freaky Friday and Mean Girls) succeeds. But his emphasis on the forbidding and dangerous aspects of the faerie world overshadows the wondrous. There’s plenty of action (the violence level is almost surprisingly high for a film that gets away with only a PG rating) and menacing monsters who are convincingly integrated into the environments through excellent CGI, but the moments of awe–such as when the Grace kids ride a gryphon or encounter flower-like faeries–are fewer and farther between. Spiderwick is a fantastic and thrilling adventure, but could have used more curiosity and wonder.
Director Brad Silberling is also known for Casper (1995), the Nic Cage/Meg Ryan weepie City of Angels (1998), and last year‘s critically-derided summer bomb Land of the Lost. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is clearly one of his better films, and for it, he assembled a team–from production design to cinematography to makeup and costumes–that really pulled out all the stops to create an entire world that is a feast for the eyes. In a lot of ways, the world that the Baudelaire children inhabit is reminiscent of something from a Tim Burton film–nearly as dark as the story itself. Shot almost entirely on soundstages (even the exterior scenes), the film has an otherwordly quality that really helps sell the outrageous story.
In the end, they’re almost entirely different challenges. But while Waters convincingly brings goblins into our world, and fills his story with relentless adventure and action, Silberling and his team really deserve credit for creating an engrossing alternate reality from the ground up. The winner of this round is Lemony Snicket, 10-9.
Both films are rollicking fantasy adventure tales, and entertaining for anyone looking for an alternative to Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia. Ultimately, the undeniably brilliant performance from Jim Carrey and the fact that Brad Silberling and his team created a truly visually unique world just edge Lemony Snicket ahead of the competition. The winner of this bout: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.