When the three Grace kids move to a remote old house with their Mum, they little suspect that their crazy ancestor (David Strathairn)’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You is actually a description of the creatures that inhabit the house itself – and the woods outside.
Bookish Simon (Brit Freddie Highmore) examines the house, but it’s his edgy twin-brother Jared (also played by Highmore) who cottons on to the funny goings on and sets out to investigate. Just who’s nicking their stuff? Why are the cupboards full of honey? And what’s moving behind the walls?
Finding their great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide, Jared soon discovers a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And despite the warnings of hobgoblin Hogsqueal, the Grace kids open the book and lay themselves open to the fearsome Mulgarath, a shape-shifting ogre (Nick Nolte) who wants the book – at whatever cost.
First and foremost, The Spiderwick Chronicles is good family fun – raised up a notch through the cracking performances of young Freddie Highmore as the chalk-and-cheese twins Jared and Simon. Seamlessly segued together, their scenes bristle with all-too-real family frustrations.
It’s almost a pity when the film takes its flight into fancy. Rooted more in the real world than The Chronicles of Narnia, Spiderwick cleverly ploughs its own furrow – while mining the essentials of cute but funny creatures and requisite bodily humour.
And director Mark Waters – known for his family films Mean Girls and Freaky Friday – provides some impressive visuals. The sky-flight swirl of butterfly-faeries is beautifully rendered and reminds us of similar ethereal scenes in his excellent fantasy rom-com Just Like Heaven.
But the action sequences – as Mulgarath’s goblins lay siege to the house – are imaginatively done, the creatures being invisible to anyone who doesn’t look through a ‘seeing stone’ or who hasn’t been spat-in-the-eye by a goblin. And when sister Mallory returns home from fencing practice and suddenly ‘sees’ the evil creatures around her, girl-power really kicks ass in cheer-inducing scene.
Pleasing for both boys and girls of any age, The Spiderwick Chronicles is entertaining but perhaps not special enough to merit a series. It’s notable more for its darker scenes – at the heart of the family – including one twist with a decidedly corkscrew edge. Ultimately, by comparison, the fantasy element is winsome but not winning.