February 21, 2008

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The Spiderwick Chronicles (PG)
Twin brothers and their older sister move with their mom to a big creepy house in the country and find that the neighbors are quite literally ogres and goblins in The Spiderwick Chronicles, a movie based on the book series by Holly Black and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi.

Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker), barely keeping it together after a recent separation, has moved her children Mallory (Sarah Bolger), a teenage fencer, and Jared and Simon (both Freddie Highmore), twin elementary-ish aged boys, to a big house out in the country. Though it has a bazillion rooms and furniture that I’m sure some antique collector would gush over, Helen is getting the house on the cheap because it was handed down from some aunt (Joan Plowright).

Mallory and Simon seem eager to help their mom make it work, but Jared is angry about leaving New York City and wants to live with his dad. His petulance makes him a suspect when things start to go wrong at the house — missing trinkets, a skittering noise in the wall and his sister’s discovery, when she wakes up in the middle of the night, that her hair has all been tied to her headboard.

But Jared insists he’s innocent and, as unbelievable as even he initially thinks it is, he knows what’s causing the trouble — a brownie named Thimbletack (Martin Short). By moving the brownie’s stash of shiny objects, Jared figures out, he’s angered Thimbletack. With the help of a strange book in the attic, he’s able to appease the brownie with honey, but then he finds out that he’s committed an even bigger, more dangerous faux pas — Jared has opened and unknowingly alerted some toady little goblins to the existence of a field guide to magical creatures written by distant relative Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). Now the evil Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) will want the book (all the better to rule the magical world with) and Jared is faced with having to convince his brother, sister and eventually mother of the existence of these magical creatures so they can help him fight off Mulgarath and defend their lives.

The Spiderwick Chronicles offers a delightfully self-contained story of the siblings, their adventures and the lessons (both magical and familial) that they learn along the way. And the strength and believability of this family gives depth to all the special effects wizardry. Even though one of the brothers is a computer creation, the siblings have a natural and genuine relationship with each other. Mallory is appropriately bossy and Simon and Jared have the kind of personalities you’d expect kids to develop in a home where the parents are in conflict — Simon is always trying to calm things down, Jared is angry. Really selling the family-in-turmoil is Parker, who, as in Weeds, plays a mom in frustration who always reminds me a bit of the Sleater-Kinney song “Jumper,” sort of quietly angry and, well, ready to jump or possibly push someone.

Into this surprisingly gritty (though still PG) picture of a family starting over we get a really solid adventure full of magical creatures, many of whom are funny without being too jokey and all of whom are rather fascinating. The movie builds enough of a mythology around the different kinds of creatures and magical gadgets to give texture to this world but not too much to get us bogged down in a catalogue of characters.

As I found myself really getting into both the human and the supernatural struggles of this story, I started to think about my decision not to bring my 7-year-old stepson, a decision that I think was the right one. I think some of the things that gave the story emotional depth and fantastical complexity for me might have scared and confused him (a kid worrying about something living in his walls is the absolute best way to ensure that nobody in the house ever gets a good night’s sleep). Nick Nolte is a scary dude all on his own. With the help of CGI, his Mulgarath is a particularly nasty-seeming bad guy. And some of the family stuff, particularly one scene toward the end, can get pretty intense.

For older kids, however, The Spiderwick Chronicles reminded me of Spy Kids for its ability to blend a believable family and sibling relationship with engrossing adventure. Be nice to your brother because you might one day need him to help you to fight goblins and cast magical spells — really, what could be a better message? B

Rated PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements. Directed by Mark Waters and written by Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles (from the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black), The Spiderwick Chronicles is an hour and 37 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Nickelodeon Movies.