After the overcooked bombast of “The Golden Compass” and the slapdash carelessness of “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising,” “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is a pleasant, lightweight treat. Like those other films, it’s a young adult fantasy story based on a series of novels; unlike them, it is coherent and occasionally thrilling. It’s a movie I can imagine kids actually liking, as opposed to one that clueless studio executives merely want them to like.
The setting is a decrepit old house in New England, where young Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore) has just moved with his family: twin brother Simon (also Highmore), jerky older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and their mother (Mary-Louise Parker). Dad is in the process of taking himself out of the picture, and for reasons not explained the family has moved into the house, which belonged to a great-great-uncle.
That ancestor, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), had dealings with magical creatures — fairies, goblins, and the like — and compiled all the knowledge he gleaned into a book, which he has sealed up and hidden in the attic. Jared, however, surly about the move and eager to rebel, finds the book, ignores its warnings, and reads it. Unsealing it awakens an ogre called Mulgarath (voice of Nick Nolte), who wants to use the secrets contained in the book to destroy all life on earth, magical and non-magical alike.
Jared is informed of the basics of the magical world by Thimbletack (voice of Martin Short), a brownie who lives in the walls of the house. Magical creatures are invisible to humans unless they desire to be seen, or unless the humans look through a special lens that Spiderwick designed, or unless a magical creature does you the favor of spitting into your face. (Magic saliva has certain properties.) The house is protected by a spell that repels Mulgarath’s legion of squatty, nasty goblins, but if anyone treads outside the charm’s boundaries, they are fair game.
I can find a few things to complain about. It’s never explained what type of information the book has that would be useful to the ogre; you’d think that, being a magical creature himself, he would already know whatever Spiderwick learned in his observations. Also, it’s funny how the kids’ crazy old aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright) had an American accent when she was a child but evidently became British as she got older. The grand climax in the battle with Mulgarath is outrageously abrupt and maybe anti-climactic — though it did make me laugh, and I think it was supposed to.
But these quibbles are amusing, not annoying; I enjoyed most of the film. Freddie Highmore, already deservedly praised for his performances in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” continues to impress in his dual roles here. Director Mark Waters (“Mean Girls,” “Freaky Friday”) and screenwriters Karey Kirkpatrick (“Charlotte’s Web”) and David Berenbaum (“Elf”) get mired in family-drama stuff here and there (notably Jared’s anger over his parents’ separation), but for the most part the focus is sharp and the story is swiftly told. The film is short without feeling rushed, and the special effects are convincing without drawing undue attention to themselves. It’s a fun, likable, and straightforward movie. Take the kids and enjoy yourselves.
B (1 hr., 37 min.; )