WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS MOVIE REVIEW, FOR IF YOU TAKE ONE FATEFULL LOOK, YOU WILL FACE A DEADLY CONSEQUENCE
By Dennis GrasskaNo, not really. But such an ominous warning might have been appropriate had this review been written by Arthur Spiderwick, the author of a “field guide” to the magical world of fairies, goblins and ogres. Of course, judging by what happens in “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” a new film in which the field guide plays a prominent role, it is unlikely such a warning would have done much good.
In “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” an exciting, often suspenseful but generally family-friendly fantasy film, a similarly worded warning is affixed to the cover of Spiderwick’s tome. But it fails to dissuade young Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore) from taking “one fateful look” and facing the aforementioned “deadly consequence,” which means running afoul of an evil ogre named Mulgarath (Nick Nolte).
Based on Tony Diterlizzi and Holly Black’s fantasy book series, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” represents the most recent attempt by a Hollywood studio - this time, Nickelodeon Movies - to recapture the box office magic of the Harry Potter franchise. Previous attempts resulted in such successes as “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” - its first sequel arrives in theaters this summer - and such disappointments as “The Golden Compass,” “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
The experts tell us that there are really only a handful of plots, and every work of fiction, no matter how creative or seemingly original, is ultimately derived from one of them. If so, then perhaps the most enduring and beloved of these plots is that of the man, woman or child who stumbles across a hidden world of magic and fantasy. Dorothy Gale found it somewhere over the rainbow, the four Pevensie children accessed it through a professor’s old wardrobe and the Darling children were guided to it by the second star on the right. In “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” just as in the “Harry Potter” series, the world of fantasy is revealed to be all around us, though effectively concealed by magical powers.
Jared Grace is unhappy about having to move, along with his mother Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) and his siblings - twin brother Simon (also played by Highmore) and sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) - into the rundown, abandoned home of the children’s great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick, who mysteriously vanished 80 years before. Helen, divorced and in a bad financial situation, has inherited the house because she is Spiderwick’s only living heir, with the exception of his daughter, Lucinda, who was committed to Woodhaven Sanitarium after claiming that her father was spirited away by winged fairies.
While exploring his new home, Jared discovers Spiderwick’s secret study and finds his field guide, which contains Spiderwick’s meticulous research on the various species of fantasy creatures, all of which are capable of revealing and concealing themselves by virtue of their own magical powers. From Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a brownie who lives in the Spiderwick house, Jared learns that Mulgarath covets the book in order to use its secrets to destroy other fairy creatures and position himself as the most powerful being on the planet. When Mulgarath learns that Jared possesses the book, the Graces must defend their new home and their very lives against the ogre and his army of goblins.
A sense of mystery pervades, and viewers will be hard pressed to avoid being drawn in.
Highmore, whose previous roles include the young King Arthur in the made-for-television movie “The Mists of Avalon” and the title characters in both “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Arthur and the Invisibles,” does well in the dual role of two brothers with very different temperaments. But the film’s cast of creatures, including the brownie Thimbletack, the hobgoblin Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen) and Mulgarath’s goblin horde, are less impressive. Audiences spoiled by the excellent computer-generated effects of “The Lord of the Rings” will be disappointed by the effects in this film, which are much less realistic.
The film’s depiction of its goblin villains appears to be a concession to its target audience, primarily children. The shape-shifting Mulgarath is a formidable foe, but the film’s goblins are too small and goofy-looking to strike older viewers as particularly menacing.
Strangely, despite being geared toward children, the film contains several elements potentially disturbing for young viewers, including a scene in which one of the protagonists receives a pretty nasty-looking goblin bite. There is also the clear understanding that Mulgarath intends to murder the Grace Family, and a final battle in which knife-wielding kids make their final stand at the Spiderwick house.