The Spiderwick Chronicles, for some, may find its way into the upper tier of cinematic adaptations of magical adventures. It has plenty of story, interesting characters, and visual effects going for it, even if it may not excite or move family audiences like The Chronicles of Narnia.
Director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls) isn't working with a languishing Lindsay Lohan whom he had his best success with; instead he has the rather talented young actor Freddie Highmore, last seen in the off-key August Rush. He relates the modern day to the imagination brought forth in the book by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.
As twins Jared and professed pacifist Simon Grace, Highmore's dual role allows him to do an American accent with little of his British lilt. As in the aformentioned Dickensian picture, Highmore plays someone (here Jared) who ends up having a remarkable talent. The casting might throw off some viewers initially, but the lad fills the disparate twin shoes rather well as things get going after a bit sluggish start.
The script, partially fused by Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) and independent pioneer director John Sayles centers around all of the dysfunctional elements happening to the Grace family (who include teen fencing sister Mallory, Sarah Bolger of In America" and just-separated mother, played by Mary-Louise Parker of Showtime's "Weeds"). It involves their move from New York to a rural mansion belonging once to a great-great-uncle named Arthur Spiderwick, left to them by their great-aunt Lucinda, Arthur's daughter.
Jared acts out against her mother's upcoming divorce by roaming around the large, somewhat creepy abode, finding a mysterious, titular tome in the attic. The opening of the book sets off a kind of Pandora's Box through the elf-like "brownie" Thimbletack, voiced by Martin Short. The story is the recollections of a fantastical realm from the uncle about four score years hence when he inexplicably vanished. Jared reads the book, perhaps more closely than the chameleon Thimbletack thinks.
The tale occasionally reaches somewhat eerie, tense moments that might have some parents or guardians questioning the film's rating. Especially in a climactic scene when Jared confronts his wayward dad (Andrew McCarthy). What looms over the mansion's protective circle, from the ghastly presences and their master fearsome ogre Mulgarath, menacingly voiced by Nick Nolte, puts the Grace clan into a tremulous state that requires grace under pressure. A key supporting character, maybe a narrative device, is Lucinda, acted by Joan Plowright, now wrongly sent to a sanitarium, who may have insight into her father's disappearance. And, she could be vital to help Jared, Simon, and Mallory make sure how to keep the book from being tampered with again, even with some missing pages.
The adventure works noticeably well off of secrets and what is haunted, fairly respectful of its audience and their ability to imagine. From sibling rivalry to spirites, fairies, goblins, a troll, and griffins, the pace quickens after Jared's poking into the paranormal. Besides the wonderful Plowright and wicked Nolte, notable voice and on-screen talent come in the form of Seth Rogen (Superbad) as the rascal hobgoblin Hogsqueal and David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum) as the enigmatic Spiderwick, the latter seen in sepia flashbacks, even at the start completing his field guide.
From the antecedent with its classic drawings, the visuals (especially dandelion) tap sharply into the hackles of what lies beyond, as the fanciful interpretation is grounded in a humanistic way. Hogsqueal may crave vengeance over death, but Jared's love of family, and understanding of salt and tomato sauce helps the Fantasia-like magic go down easy.