If you go down to the woods today, you may never come back again... Based on a series of novels by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, Mark Waters’ crisp and compelling movie is a fantasy with shades of Narnia to it: three siblings are deposited in a creepy old country house owned by their great, great uncle Arthur Spiderwick and discover a magical world of ogres, goblins and faeries. In this case, the kids aren’t war refugees; their parents are divorcing. And they don’t have to venture out through a wardrobe, but simply crack open their late uncle’s Field Guide To The Fantastical World Around You.
It’s a dangerous read: the ogre Mulgarath is desperate to get his claws on the book and only the enchanted circle that Spiderwick planted around the house is stopping him. Of course if Jared (Freddie Highmore), his twin brother Simon (Highmore doubling up) or his older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) venture outside that circle, they’re in mortal peril. Fortunately Mulgarath also has enemies; creatures like the hobgoblin Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen) and house brownie Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), who’ll help the Grace children if they get into a spot of bother.
You might think Highmore would have given fairies a wide berth after Luc Besson’s dire Arthur And The Invisibles, but mostly Spiderwick works like a charm. The most telling difference is the effort that the filmmakers take to ground the fantasy in painful emotional realities and their refusal to shy away from the scary stuff. In fact, the tense climax plays out more like a home invasion thriller than a bedtime story.
Despite some off-the-peg story elements, there’s plenty to grab the eye in The Spiderwick Chronicles – it’s prettily photographed by veteran Caleb Deschanel and the creatures are genuinely fantastic. The film may prove a little too whimsical for cynical older teens and way too intense for the under-eights, but there’s more than enough quality and charm to keep the rest of us happy.
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The plotting is a little predictable and the tight pacing comes at the expense of character, but this grim yet wistful modern fairytale is a cut above average.