The opening primes you to expect one atrocity after another, but half an hour in, Ezra takes a sharp turn in the direction of compassionate humanism. The title character (Mamoudu Turay Kamara) isn’t a glassy-eyed monster—so what is he? A boy, mainly, who has truly come to believe that the government in power has plundered his country, that in war, people die. Dependent on ruthless, greedy men, he accepts that it’s permissible to cut off the hand that would vote for the enemy régime. But when Ezra encounters his mutilated sister and learns his parents were murdered, he recoils, rages, begs to be allowed to take revenge on their killers. He doesn’t remember that he was on the scene the night they died.
The story is hell to follow—the flashbacks aren’t in chronological order—and the nonacting variable. The tatty budget shows. But there are extraordinary moments in the rebel camp, in which the filmmaking becomes simpler as the psychology grows more complicated, as the boys (and girls) lean on one another and grope their way toward a kind of normalcy. Ezra’s moral awakening opens him up to the scale of the tragedy and brings pain instead of healing. Truth? Reconciliation? Not in this world.
The Spiderwick Chronicles boasts some of the ugliest animated creatures this side of Jar-Jar Binks, and the friendly ones are only marginally less repulsive than the lethal ones. (The obnoxious vocal stylings of Martin Short and Seth Rogen don’t help.) They’re all part of the fairy world that’s documented in a “field guide” by the late or at least disappeared Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn)—the book discovered in an attic by young Jared (Freddie Highmore) after he and his twin brother, Simon (Highmore again), sister, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and frazzled mother (Mary-Louise Parker) move into Spiderwick’s dilapidated old mansion. The trolls, led by a giant blob with the voice of Nick Nolte (who shows up briefly in the flesh, looking more unmoored than the blob), lay siege to the house in an attempt to get their hands on Spiderwick’s tome, which apparently holds the key to world domination. The standoff stretches on and on, and I passed the time admiring the sound, especially the hoot owls coming from the back speakers. I’ve been trying to get the same effect on my own system at home, but I need to pay someone, like, $500 to tinker with it.
Oh, yes, Spiderwick. There’s nothing wrong with it that passion and personality couldn’t fix. The slim books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black were derivative but unpretentious affairs with appealing black-and-white drawings. The movie is like something cobbled together out of pieces of better movies and homogenized inside a computer, then bathed in a twinkling, James Horner–channeling–John Williams score with a few chromatic chords to keep the orchestra from laughing the composer off the podium. As the troubled Jared, Highmore does well at suggesting he’s carrying the weight of the world on his little shoulders (he could be an honorary Osment, as in Haley Joel), and Bolger (one of the sisters in In America) is blossoming into a cat-eyed beauty. But Strathairn is too grounded to play the airy-fairy Spiderwick. He reels and moons and stares into the distance as if waiting for the village-idiot parade.