Even if you think you’ve had your fill of kid movies about youngsters who stumble upon magical worlds of trolls and ogres, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is bound to surprise you. Smartly directed by Mark Waters (“Mean Girls,” “The House of Yes”), the film expertly introduces audiences to its world, explains the rules and the consequences at stake, and even creates some interesting human characters.
British actor Freddie Highmore, managing a very passable American accent, stars as Jared Grace, who’s still angry and resentful about his parents’ recent divorce; he also plays Simon, Jared’s milder twin brother. Along with their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger, an Irish actress doing an equally convincing Yank voice), the pair have moved to a spooky old house in upstate New York that their mother (Mary-Louise Parker) inherited. The house’s actual owner, dotty old Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright), has been institutionalized for decades due to her conviction that faeries took her late father Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) away.
Ah, but dear Lucinda isn’t batty after all; Arthur could see and talk to magical creatures like goblins and boggarts, and he wrote a field guide outlining their strengths and weaknesses. That book is still in the old house, and when Jared finds it, he unwittingly unleashes the fury of Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), an evil ogre who wants to claim the book for himself so that he can destroy all creation.
Jared suddenly finds himself having to defend his family from creatures that only he can see — not to mention the tougher task of convincing his sister and mother that he’s telling the truth and not just acting out.
“Spiderwick Chronicles” provides lots of thrills and chills — so much so that it may be too scary for younger viewers — but it works best when it implies instead of showing. The CGI creatures are well-produced, but many of these mythical beasties are scarier when they’re invisible. If there’s one element of the film that fails miserably, it’s the attempt at comic relief from Martin Short (as a honey-addicted house sprite) and Seth Rogen (as a hobgoblin who spits in the humans’ faces so that they can see the otherwise invisible creatures).
Highmore, whose talents have been wasted in tripe like “August Rush” and the misbegotten “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” finally has a vehicle that deserves him, and he makes each twin Grace brother a separate and fully fleshed-out individual. Parker, Strathairn and Plowright aren’t just slumming here, and Nolte is eerily perfect as the movie’s Big Bad.
And while the film mostly concerns itself with mythical creatures, it very intelligently addresses what divorce can do to a family, specifically to the kids. (And in doing so, it winds up being a much smarter movie on this subject than “Definitely, Maybe,” also opening this week.) While “Spiderwick” won’t necessarily delight parents as much as, say, the Harry Potter series, it still makes for a pretty nifty family outing to the movies.