Thanks in no small part to a certain boy wizard, fantasy movies based on children's book series are hot, hot, hot. The latest to come down the pike, The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on the popular series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, hits the mark on almost all counts. Like a lot of good fantasy films, this one centers around a spooky old house in the middle of nowhere, and opens with the Grace children and their mother pulling into the drive. The Graces have just moved from New York City to this ominous house, left to the mother by an aunt who's in a mental facility. Dad isn't along for the move, creating some nice underlying tension between the sibs and their mom around their fractured family.
The Grace children are twins Jared (the tough, angry kid) and Simon (the dorky, science-geek kid), a dual role played by Freddie Highmore, and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger). Jared is not happy to be there; he blames his mother for his parents' marriage falling apart, and wants to move in with his dad. But it isn't long before Jared becomes a bit intrigued by the house ... he discovers the musty office of his great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) -- and Uncle Spiderwick's life work, a Field Guide to the fantasy world. The book is crammed with knowledge of all the races of creatures unknown to most men, but spoken of in lore: faeries, brownies, boggarts, goblins, trolls, and the big meanie of them all, an ogre named Mulgarath. Unfortunately, Jared ignores the note on the book warning anyone who finds it not to read it (but who wouldn't ignore a note like that? The best way to ensure someone reads a forbidden book is to tell them not to open it, right?), and when he breaks the seal, he also breaks the protective charm that was keeping the book hidden from the baddies. Mulgarath, naturally, would love to get his hands on Spiderwick's Field Guide, because it has enough information in there to allow him to destroy all the creatures of the faerie realm. Why would he want to do that? No idea, but that's what makes him a bad guy -- he just wants to kill and destroy everything good in the world.
Once the magical seal is broken, nasty little toad-like goblins show up to try to capture the book. They can't get into the house itself, because Uncle Spiderwick, who was pretty handy with the charms, cast a protective circle around the house that they aren't able to break through. So long as the kids, their mom, and the all-important book stay inside the circle, the goblins can't get it. As soon as they step a toenail past it, though, it's fair game. Pretty soon Jared has teamed up with Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short, who's less annoying than he usually is here), a brownie who lives in the house and protects the book, and Hogsqueal (amusingly voiced by Seth Rogen), a "hog-goblin" seeking revenge on Mulgarath for murdering his entire family, when he's not getting distracted by eating birds.
At first, Simon and Mallory don't believe Jared's tales of magical creatures, but with the aid of a magical ring made of stone they're able to see what was previously invisible to them -- and it's not a pretty sight. Fortunately, Mallory is a fencing champion, and also fortunately, there's a secret tunnel under the house that leads into town, so they're able to make it to the very posh-looking mental home where their Aunt Lucinda lives. Poor Lucinda saw her father taken away by the faeries when she was six, and ever since people have said she's a bit nuts -- the fact that she has her house stocked to the gills with oatmeal, honey, vinegar, salt and tomato sauce (all handy for fending off the baddies, it seems) didn't help that perception much. She tells the kids that the only hope they have is to get the book to her father, who's still alive in the faerie realm, and make him destroy the book before Mulgarath can get his slimy, evil claws on it.
As far as fantasy-adventure stories go, The Spiderwick Chronicles has all the elements the kids want to see -- a trio of brave, resourceful kid heroes up against unbelievably scary villains, a fragile mother to protect from harm, a magical book, and all sorts of mythical creatures running amuck. There are exciting chases, harrowing battles, and a final stand on which everything rides. The story is a bit predictable, but not necessarily in a bad way; it's rather like a puzzle in that you know how the final picture will look, but the process of putting it together is still satisfying. As far as fantasy adaptations go, screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, and John Sayles(!) have done a nice job taking the source material and crafting a script that works quite well. Helmer Mark Waters, who previously directed House of Yes (one of my favorite films ever), Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, knows what he's doing when it comes to this target market, and the directing is solid here as well.
The CGI work is well done throughout, and the mythical creatures should enthrall the kids. Parents will want to know about the "scary factor." I saw quite a few folks at the preview screening with very small children, and I would not recommend this film for the smaller set. The goblins are fairly scary, there's an intense chase scene in the tunnel involving a large troll (though it does get taken out in a funny way), and as for Mulgarath, well, picture Nick Nolte in a drunken rampage and then layer on some freaky CGI effects and bad hygiene to make him into an evil ogre, and you get one scary bad guy who may be a bit too much for younger kids. My 10-year-old held my hand through a few of the Mulgarath scenes, and she has a pretty high tolerance for fantasy-type scary stuff.
As far as the acting goes, it's quite good. I didn't realize Thimbletack was voiced by Short until the credits rolled, and he did some nice work bringing the character to life. Rogen adds comic relief (I know, who would've thought?) as Hogsqueal, and Nolte makes for a good, scary ogre. Highmore does such a good job playing two very different boys, it took me a bit to realize he was playing both roles. He's a talented young actor, and it's good to see that he's grown from his promising start in Finding Neverland into a teen actor who can ably carry a dual role with a decent American accent (it's not exactly a New Yorker accent, and they're supposed to be from New York City, but we'll forgive him that).
Bolger (previously seen as one of the sisters in In America) hides her native Irish accent well and does a fine job as the damsel who kicks butt and doesn't need rescuing. Mary-Louise Parker, as the kids' mom, turns in the fine performance you would expect from her -- she shows the hurt of her failed marriage mostly through subtleties of facial expression, without overacting it, and when she needs to turn Mama Bear to protect her kids, you can still see the fear under the surface bravado.
The Spiderwick Chronicles holds its own well amid the spate of fantasy films coming down the pike -- Golden Compass last December (and I still don't think that film was nearly as bad as the panning it got from some quarters), Prince Caspian in May, and we have another Harry Potter and an adaptation of Cornelia Funke's Inkheart yet to come. It's nice to see all these fantasy films aimed at the younger set that are adapted from book series (gosh, they might even encourage some kids to put down the video game controllers and read a book!). Spiderwick hits the high notes when it needs to, and kids who can handle the scarier parts will find it an enjoyable escape.