The Spiderwick Chronicles has all the elements that make up great kids' movies: a haunted house, a family secret, an ordinary child granted an extraordinary skill, and an emotional subplot that anchors the fantasy within real human experience. Though it doesn’t match the immortal greats like E.T., it comes remarkably close, and provides a genuinely thrilling adventure story that never panders or condescends. It’s hard to come by good kids' entertainment these days, as Alvin and the Chipmunks demonstrates, so weary parents should be especially grateful for this fantasy romp.
Freddie Highmore does double duty, and an American accent to boot, playing twins Jared and Simon Grace. The boys, their teenage sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and mom (Mary-Louise Parker) have moved into the rural mansion that once belonged to the great-uncle Spiderwick. They’ve moved due to the parents’ impending divorce, and Jared, hit especially hard by his father’s departure, acts out against his family when not snooping around the mysterious house. It doesn’t take him long to discover Spiderwick’s attic, stuffed with creepy crawlies and hosting a very large, very mysterious book.
The book, of course, is the titular Spiderwick Chronicles, the first-ever field guide to the magical realm, compiled by Spiderwick before his mysterious disappearance 80 years earlier. Jared ignores a warning on the outside not to open the book, and immediately raises the hackles of the house “brownie” Thimbletack, an elfin little thing voiced by Martin Short. Thimbletack explains that opening the book has reawakened the goblins who live in the forest, and their master Mulgrath will stop at nothing to get his hands on the powerful secrets inside the book.
A circle of protection erected around the house by Spiderwick keeps the family safe inside it, but, when Mulgrath gets his hands on a few key pages of the book, it’s a race against time before the circle is broken and the family must fight for their lives. Jared, Simon, and Mallory go on a hunt for Spiderwick’s daughter, Lucinda (Joan Plowright), who was unfairly locked in a mental institution after her father’s disappearance, and try to find Spiderwick himself in order to discover how to keep the book protected forever.
That’s a hell of a plot description, I know, and The Spiderwick Chronicles definitely wastes no time in moving from revelation to revelation, and adventure to adventure. There’s battling the goblins, riding a griffin, getting swept up by fairies, and then just your average sibling rivalry. Not only is the adventure fast-paced and exciting, but it’s not afraid to be scary. The beginning of the film, when Jared first investigates the house’s mysteries, could come straight out of Poltergeist, and the goblins take an early innocent victim (not human, of course) that proves they mean business. Adventures are only fun when the stakes are high, and while younger children may not be able to deal with the tension and occasional scares, kids who love The Princess Bride and can handle Voldemort will be thrilled to find a movie that doesn’t think they’re wimps.
Highmore’s double casting is kind of unnecessary, and confusing at first, but he proves his talent once again in playing the very different Jared and Simon. The voice talent works nicely as well, particularly Seth Rogen as the mischievous hobgoblin Hogsqueal and Nick Nolte as the vicious Mulgrath. The on-screen actors are game, too, and unexpectedly touching in many moments (Plowright and David Strathairn as Spiderwick are, true to their reputations, great). But mostly it’s the story, ably directed by Mark Waters and adapted by Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum, that makes the movie as much fun as it is. Even though it takes a little while getting started, and doesn’t quite reach the emotional climax it’s going for, The Spiderwick Chronicles is more-than-worthy entertainment, a classic adventure with its heart and its sense of whimsy in all the right places.