This is my contribution for the Dual Roles Blogathon.
Reception: Here and Elsewhere
Roger Ebert gave this film 3.5/4 stars. He provided great pull-quote material but not without a caveat:
“The Spiderwick Chronicles is a terrific entertainment for the whole family, except those below a certain age, who are likely to be scared out of their wits. What is that age? I dunno; they’re your kids.”
Clearly that sentiment was truncated for the DVD release. He is correct in that it is likely a more 1980s PG than a 2008 PG. However, it is quite good and has an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is rather high for a family fantasy.
In 2008 this film was nominated for 10 BAM Awards (tied for the most) in large part due to its technical prowess of it, but it was also in my top 10 and thus a Best Picture nominee for that year. It won the award for Best Sound Editing.
The lead actor, Freddie Highmore of the dual roles, was nominated for Best Performance by a Child Actor as it was called then, and likely would have won were it not for Will Poulter’s stunning debut which did not require the affectation of dual roles. Highmore won the year before in a comparatively stronger performance in August Rush.
The film is an amalgamated adaptation of a number of books in the series. The team in front of and behind the camera is impressive. Director Mark Waters, just coming off his remake of Freaky Friday, which was a big hit in every sense; but the names behind the scenes of The Spiderwick Chronicles get bigger. James Horner provided the scoring, Michael Kahn, whom usually cuts Spielberg’s films was editor, and Caleb Deschanel, the noted multi-Oscar nominee, was the cinematographer. So the team was in place to deliver this story as well as possible.
Flanking Highmore was Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker as his mother, Joan Plowright as Aunt Lucinda, David Strathairn as Arthur Spiderwick, and Nick Nolte as Mulgarath.
Highmore has become better known in his early adulthood as Norman Bates on Bates Motel, which will have upcoming its 5th and final season. However, his transition from young actor to adult actor has been, albeit not well-publicized, fairly smooth and persistent.
in 2010, at age 18, he appeared in Toast, which earned a bit of notice on my site and at the BAM Awards. In 2011 he was in the lackluster The Art of Getting By and in 2013 Bates started up. This year he featured in a BBC mini-series called Close to the Enemy an indie called The Journey, and his most outstanding work on Bates Motel to date.
Even becoming a working actor after being one of the biggest young stars of your day is quite a feat.
As for The Spiderwick Chronicles, dual roles is not something that young actors normally do for pragmatic reasons first and foremost. Young actors, due to union and legal regulations, work fewer hours on set. Minors also have schooling requirements if they’re not working a summer shoot. To put a young actor in two major roles is a logistical hardship more so than merely having a young lead or ensemble, which is the reason why you see so many “high school” shows populated by actors in their 20s and even 30s.
So there’s a tribute to Highmore in that they found him capable of playing these twins, rather than finding twins to play the roles, and also in making scheduling a bit more of a headache as a trade-off for a better end product.
If you then consider that this is was Highmore working with his non-regional American dialect for a 3rd film and this time while playing two characters, it’s even more impressive. Clearly, when playing two characters, even when one if far more involved in the plot than the other, it’s still twice as much work and the actor has to work two characters through their arc while also differentiating their mannerisms, physicality, and demeanor.
This is established almost right away. Jared, the character who carries most of the action in this film, gets into a spat with his older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger). Highmore is intense and angry and seeking to engage her physically. Wanting help from his twin, Jared says:
“Simon, get her!”
“I’m a pacifist.”
The response is a throwaway wherein Highmore makes no eye contact with his alter ego. This instantly makes an impression about how to set the twins apart. They are not the dress alike, inseparable brand. Jared is more the everyman, who is angrier about the move, and in general; Simon is more studious and uptight.
Jared is the doubter at first of anything magical going on, but is also more adventurous and finds the book, uses the dumbwaiter. His character is not only introduced in a fit or anger but it is intimated he had anger management issues in the past.
Simon doubts Jared’s story´at first. When he’s taken by ogres Jared’s on a journey whether he wants to be or not having started the ball rolling by reading the book and taking it outside of the protective circle around their house.
Among the other challenges present to Highmore in this film is that he has to interact with a CG counterpart on more than a few occasions. There is also a scene wherein Jared and Simon are fighting each other which required Highmore to play both sides of the fight opposite stand-ins and doubles, it’s a demanding piece of physicality that cuts well.
After Jared brings Simon back to safety, literally dragging him, his leg injury (prosthetic make-up time added to logistics to consider – time in the make-up chair is time on the clock for a young actor) makes him most useful at the house. This allows for fewer scenes where Highmore would have to shoot two sides if he went with them to try and fight Aunt Lucinda.
While we’re far removed from the silent film days where there were Hollywood legends of directors literally willing to traumatize young actors to get them to produce real tears on film, crying scenes are still very demanding on an actor of any age. Highmore as a youth had these scenes as one of his calling cards and in this film there is a point where each of his characters is pushed to tears. For Jared it’s when he learns the truth his father won’t tell him about their parents separation that their dad has been too chicken to say to him himself.
Toward the end there are scenes where the two characters collaborate such as when Jared summons the Griffin and Simon settles him down. Simon is teary in the cage when captured and also toward the end I believe. Here is the former scene for an example of Highmore as his own scene partner:
Below is another example of his work, this time in a climactic scene. Please do not watch it if you’ve not yet seen the movie. Scroll past.
There was less fanfare for this film than say The Parent Trap, as that was Lohan’s breakout and a remake, but this film is not too well remembered, and it should be in part because Highmore shines throughout.