‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’ Review: Christian Slater in a Roku Fantasy Series Sorely Lacking in Wonder

Magic is all around in the world of The Spiderwick Chronicles. Most of it is hidden away from the eyes of humans, tucked into obscure corners or shielded from human eyes by glamours. Still, those with hearts and minds open enough to see what’s in front of them — like our 15-year-old hero Jared (Lyon Daniels) — might find in the sleepy town of Henson, Michigan, a veritable haven of otherworldly life. Unicorns frolic in a glen. Sprites flutter alongside fireflies at dusk. Just outside the doors of a nondescript grocery, a goblin market trades in mythical weapons and pumpkin spice lattes.

But if such extraordinary sights are everywhere, the sense of wonder that ought to accompany them proves to be in disappointingly short supply. Even as The Spiderwick Chronicles‘ head drifts into the clouds, powered by fantasies of faeries and ogres and witches and dragons, the Roku Channel adventure is undone by the most mundane of missteps: repetitive plotting, lumpy pacing, underdeveloped characters making inexplicable decisions.

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Such flaws bring The Spiderwick Chronicles well short of the dreamy potential of its premise. Adapted by Aron Eli Coleite from the children’s fantasy novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, the adventure begins with the Grace family — Jared and his twin brother Simon (Noah Cottrell), their big sister Mallory (Mychala Lee) and their mother Helen (Joy Bryant) — moving back into their ancestral home, a ramshackle mansion covered in vines and snaked through with secret passageways.

As it turns out, Spiderwick Estate doesn’t just look like something out of a fairy tale. Jared is the first to catch on to the presence of mystical beings in the home and the surrounding area. Although his family initially dismisses his stories as just Jared being his usual weird self, in due time the whole clan gets caught up in the battle to save their town from a destructive supernatural force.

Their valiant quest has its charms. Momona Tamada supplies sly, dry humor as Jared’s group therapy buddy Emiko, a compulsive liar who claims her strengths as a sidekick include “hacking skills, petty larceny skills, TikTok fashion drip.” Charlayne Woodard has a minor but memorable role as Lucinda, the eccentric aunt who relates to Jared on a level their other kin do not: “It’s lonely when they think you’re crazy and you know you’re not,” she notes, with the tenderness of lived experience.

And hands-down the single best reason to watch The Spiderwick Chronicles is Christian Slater’s turn as Dr. Brauer, a psychiatrist with some ugly secrets up his sleeve. The role turns on a dime between larger-than-life villain to kindly father figure, from smooth-talking charmer to impotent comic relief, and Slater tears into each facet of the character with bloodthirsty relish.

Alas, The Spiderwick Chronicles is shakiest precisely where it needs to be strongest: with the Graces themselves. The center of their orbit is Jared, the “troubled” kid who feels more fretted over than truly seen by his family — the same mental health struggles that inspired the clan to leave Brooklyn for Michigan in the first place only make it easier for them to dismiss his breathless rants about boggarts or dragons. Cottrell tempers Jared’s impetuousness with sadness and self-loathing, and on some level it’s touching that the series allows the character to remain as prickly as he does. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any less repetitive to sit through episode after episode of Jared exploding at his family yet again for “hating” him every time they dare question a single one of his monster-hunting ideas.

At least the chip on Jared’s shoulder is plain to see and easy to understand. The Spiderwick Chronicles has a much vaguer sense of what’s driving the other Graces, to the point that it’s not always clear if their baffling choices reflect character quirks or just clumsy writing. It makes sense that sensitive Simon would be intrigued by Calliope (Alyvia Alyn Lind), a “living portent of death” disguised as an angsty teenage girl. It’s less obvious, even once all the twists are laid bare, whether we’re meant to understand his crush as a pure and noble love, a manifestation of some misguided savior complex, or a betrayal of his own blood. (Perpetually aggrieved Jared is sure it’s the latter.) Likewise, Slater and Bryant share an enjoyable rom-com chemistry, but even the faint possibility of a love story seems difficult to square with either Helen’s levelheadedness or Brauer’s deviousness.

The source material for The Spiderwick Chronicles is aimed squarely at children, and in part the show’s shallowness seems to stem from a reluctance to lose too much of its kid-friendly lightness. While the series never goes dark per se — it’s certainly softer than the adolescent fantasies of Disney+’s Goosebumps or even Renegade Nell — it has its moments of sadness and spookiness. The Graces are dealing not just with a big move, but with their split from a callously indifferent father. Jared feels alienated by a world too eager to write him off as a “bad” kid or lock him up as a “crazy” one, and his family frustrated by their inability to get through to someone they love so dearly. Meanwhile, the monster at their doorstep is prepared to manipulate and maim and kill, and grows a step closer every day to realizing its diabolical plan.

And yet, each of the eight 40+ minute chapters goes out on an end-credits sequence that feels almost jarring in its cheeriness. Against an upbeat love song by The Regrettes, pages of a field guide to magical creatures float through a sun-dappled forest, occasionally brushing by a cute sprite or a playful brownie. It is, all in all, a much sweeter, safer vision of the supernatural realm than anything Simon and Jared get to deal with. At the risk of reading way too much into a CG animation that’s not even part of the narrative, I think it speaks to a show at odds with itself — one that seems reluctant to venture too far into the darker, thornier and ultimately more fertile territory, even as its young heroes prepare to charge headfirst toward it.

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