Spinning five short books into one sleek yarn, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is a brisk, fine-tuned adaptation of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s bestselling children’s series. Tale of three young siblings — and the goblins, fairies, griffins and ogres they find lurking in their backyard — is a work of both modest enchantment and enchanting modesty, grounded in a classically Spielbergian realm where childlike wonderment crosses paths with the tough realities of young adulthood. With careful studio nurturing, this engaging, gratifyingly non-epic adventure should snag midrange B.O. after its Feb. 14 release, benefiting from Imax playdates and lack of family-friendly competition.
The disappointing recent performance of New Line’s “The Golden Compass” may have cooled commercial expectations for fantasy blockbusters not adapted from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis; like “Compass,” Paramount/Nickelodeon’s latest effort shows a director previously known for light comedies — here, Mark Waters (“Just Like Heaven,” “Mean Girls,” “Freaky Friday”) — taking risks on a broader, more ambitious canvas.
But though it arrives with less fanfare than “Compass” did, “Spiderwick” is a superior movie in almost all respects: less grandiose in scope, but richer in emotion and humor, and boasting visual effects appropriately scaled to the more intimate tenor of the production.
Young Jared (Freddie Highmore) is none too pleased to be leaving New York moving into a rural Victorian manse with his newly divorced mom (Mary-Louise Parker, good), hot-tempered older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and mellower identical twin Simon (also Highmore). Both mischievous and temperamental, Jared is immediately blamed for a series of pranks that turn out to be the handiwork of Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a cute, elf-like brownie who morphs, when provoked, into an angry boggart.
Thimbletack is merely one of the supernatural denizens on the premises, not all of them benign: There are goblins afoot, invisible henchmen of the wicked, shape-shifting Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), who’s bent on obtaining a mysterious book left behind by Jared’s great-great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn, seen in sepia-toned flashbacks). The tome is a sort of scientific field guide to the various kinds of fairies — who, along with the entire human race, would be in grave danger if such knowledge were to fall into Mulgarath’s possession.
Charged with safeguarding the book at all costs, Jared must plunder its secrets in order to protect them. More pressingly, he must get his siblings and increasingly exasperated mom to believe in the enchanted realm right outside their door — which, in a sense, is precisely what the filmmakers must accomplish for the audience. They succeed with a sly, offhand approach that never leaves reality entirely behind, allowing the supernatural elements to manifest themselves gradually and imposing limitations on how that manifestation occurs.
Though truncated from the books and festooned with fewer rhymes and riddles, the script (by Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles) carefully establishes a set of rules governing its magical realm at the outset and adheres to them both scrupulously and cleverly. Plot points such as the kids’ inability to see the goblins at first, or the “protective circle” drawn around the house by Spiderwick years ago to keep out evil, work to modulate suspense and emphasize the human characters’ vulnerability.
And despite an abundance of comical CG creatures like Thimbletack and the friendly goblin Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen) — whom viewers will probably like about as much as they like Dobby the house-elf in the “Harry Potter” pics — the visual effects have a subtle, rough-hewn quality in keeping with the moody, autumnal reds and browns of Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography. Pic builds steadily in visual grandeur, enveloping rather than bombarding the audience; late in the film, the sight of a character engulfed in pixie dust delivers a gorgeous, ethereal frisson.
With dad conspicuously absent, the script inevitably drifts into angry-kid/misunderstood-single-parent territory, which, though well played, feels like a distraction from the material rather than a dramatic extension of it. Pic also at times overdoes the sibling warfare, almost playing up Mallory’s disbelief as a way to help auds suspend their own.
But Waters never steers his actors wrong: Highmore (“Finding Neverland,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) is winning as ever in a dual role, and Bolger’s feisty turn will impress anyone who saw her quietly heartbreaking debut in “In America”; with their fine American accents, the young thesps never once betray that they’re from across the Pond. Joan Plowright makes a brief, welcome appearance as an elderly relative who holds secrets concerning the Spiderwick legacy.
Kudos to production designer James Bissell and an army of art directors and set decorators for bringing the cobwebs and crannies of the ramshackle Spiderwick estate vividly to life. Pic was shot in a secluded glade in Montreal, adding to the sense that the story is taking place at the blurred edges of two neighboring worlds; James Horner’s score, at times plucking strings to eerie effect, completes the illusion.