"The Spiderwick Chronicles" carefully sneaks into theaters after recent failed attempts from other studios to jump-start their own fantasy franchises adapted from best-selling novels. After "The Seeker: The Dark is Rising" and "The Golden Compass," the thought of another round with fantastical sights and baffling terminology wasn't appealing, yet "Spiderwick" has a special bite to it that's welcoming.
Moving into the decrepit Spiderwick Estate after family troubles leave them fatherless, twins Jared and Simon (Freddy Highmore, "August Rush") and sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger, "In America") have discovered a secret world of goblins and faeries all tied to the book, "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You." For the troubled Jared, the tome provides escape from his unhappy life, but he soon finds evil, in the form of ogre Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte), is hunting for the book, sending his armies of goblins after the siblings. Caught up in a war for control of the guide, Jared leads his family into a backyard battle, with help from faithful brownie servant Thimbletack (Martin Short) and bird-chomping hobgoblin Hogsqueal (Seth Rogan).
Of course, when one considers the limitless possibilities of family-friendly fantasy franchises, the first directorial name that pops up is Mark Waters, right? The "Mean Girls" helmer surprisingly doesn't embarrass himself here, confidently cracking open the world created by authors Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black and sniffing around the adventure within. The director's scope is much more focused and intimate than previous creature features have offered, and that newfound sense of moderation helps "Spiderwick" to entertain in a major way.
Considering that the feature film steals cues from all of the "Spiderwick" novels instead of taking one step at a time (the lucrative, traditional way of business), it's a miracle the movie remains so lucid and approachable. Waters takes matters slowly, so as not overwhelm newcomers to the world of Arthur Spiderwick (played by David Strathairn). Unlike "Golden Compass," where I felt I needed oxygen halfway through due to the weight of the exposition, "Spiderwick" is simple enough to follow, yet dense enough to tickle fans of the books. It's good vs. evil and Waters keeps to that straightforward path, spending his time more with the sophisticated design of the world than its many complications.
The aggression of "Spiderwick" also intrigued me. Waters is after a mischievous tone with his picture, and though it sticks to a safe PG rating, the film is reminiscent of Joe Dante's classic, chaotic 1984 film, "Gremlins." As the siblings fight the goblins with tomato sauce bombs and lines of salt, plenty of green goo is spilled and comical violence is displayed, perhaps a step more concentrated than parents of younger children might be expecting, but it's never mean-spirited. Waters is bringing enough threat in to establish consequences, not establish future nightmares. "Spiderwick" is executed with enough merriment and miniature awe to alleviate any moments of intensity.
Running a tight 90 minutes and absent the requisite set-up for a sequel, "Spiderwick Chronicles" achieves some laughs, scares, and tears and says goodnight. The brevity works in the film's favor, turning a potential franchise headache into a delightful winter diversion brimming with revolting creatures, magical spells, and entertaining acts of mass goblin death.
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