Hollywood's quest for the next great fantasy franchise, one capable of replicating the stunning success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series, has yielded a slew of fantastic flops, the most recent being New Line's nine-figure disappointment The Golden Compass. The latest aspirant is The Spiderwick Chronicles, based on Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's popular series of children's fantasy novels. A more modest effort than its ambitious predecessors, Mark Waters' (Just Like Heaven, Freaky Friday) competent adaptation won't scorch the box office or inspire fanatical devotion like the LotR or Potter films, but it's a pleasing enough diversion to satisfy those seeking some quality PG-oriented entertainment.
Freddie Highmore (August Rush, The Golden Compass) stars in the dual roles of siblings Jared and Simon Grace. With their parents in the midst of a messy divorce, the twin brothers are forced to move with their mother and sister into the long-vacant home of their eccentric great-great uncle Arthur Spiderwick. A sort of Charles Darwin of the ethereal, Spiderwick devoted his life to cataloguing and describing the various ogres, faeries and other creatures of "the fantastical world around you." Before inexplicably disappearing many years prior, Spiderwick recorded his findings in his "Field Guide"; when curious siblings Jared and Simon inadvertently stumble upon the guide, their eyes are opened to a world both wondrous and terrifying.
There's nothing really extraordinary about The Spiderwick Chronicles, but it covers all its narrative bases and packs enough thrills into its 97 minutes (a downright paltry running time for a genre known for its three-hour epics) to qualify as decent family entertainment. (Though it's definitely too scary for the little ones, a few of whom exited the theater bawling at the screening I attended.) Thanks to a solid performance and visual effects that have advanced by leaps and bounds since Hayley Mills first portrayed identical siblings in Disney's The Parent Trap, Highmore effectively sells the twin brother bit, and Seth Rogen, Nick Nolte and Martin Short issue memorable cameos, lending their distinct voices to a slovenly hobgoblin, a sinister ogre and a mousey shape-shifter, respectively.
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