The Spiderwick Chronicles



Launching a fantasy franchise with the bankability of a "Harry Potter" or "Lord of the Rings" can be a tricky proposition, as demonstrated with "The Golden Compass," but "The Spiderwick Chronicles," based on the series of imaginative young people's books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, could just be the ticket.

An enjoyable adventure fantasy that pushes all the requisite buttons while still managing to throw in a pleasant surprise or two, Paramount's big-budget gamble has impressive talent to burn on both sides of the camera.

Given that they have balanced all that pixie dust with generous helpings of havoc-wreaking ogre action, "Spiderwick" could cast a lasting spell on a wide-reaching demographic, though it's probably a little too intense for the 5-and-under crowd.

A tidy prologue sets up the mayhem to come as Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), a man who has devoted his life to documenting the hidden world of fairies, has put the final touches on his detailed scrapbook, "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You."

Unwittingly, Spiderwick has opened up a veritable Pandora's box with the book, especially in certain dark corners where it's being viewed as something of a "how-to" manual among fairy-hating evildoers.

Fast-forward six or seven decades, when Spiderwick's great-niece Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker), having recently broken up with her husband, arrives at his secluded, long-neglected Victorian mansion along with her teenage daughter, Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and her two sons, the rebellious Jared and the gentler Simon (both nicely delineated by Freddie Highmore).

This place is pretty much just as Uncle Arthur's daughter, Lucinda (Joan Plowright), left it before being carted off to the sanitarium, and judging from her fully stocked pantry, she could never have enough honey, oatmeal or tomato sauce.

There turns out to be a good reason for that, which Jared soon discovers after finding the hidden guide, and, ignoring warnings about its contents, unleashes a whole mess of trouble at the Spiderwick/Grace household.

These definitely are challenging new waters for director Mark Waters ("Mean Girls," "Freaky Friday"), and he handles the task impressively, expertly balancing the fantasy/reality elements as well as the considerable humor and more touching aspects that have been thoughtfully integrated in the adaptation, credited to Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles.

That finely tuned balance also can be found among the live-action castmembers, especially old pros Plowright and Strathairn, with Highmore capably doing double duty, and the voice cast for the CGI characters, including Nick Nolte's nasty Mulgarath, Martin Short's uppity, 9-inch-tall Thimbletack and Seth Rogen's raucous, bird-obsessed Hogsqueal.

The latter three -- along with the other lively sprites, hobgoblins and assorted visual effects -- mesh seamlessly, thanks to the usual state-of-the-art contributions of Industrial Light + Magic and Tippett Studio, while Caleb Deschanel's patented bright, airy cinematography provides a welcoming, naturalistic setting for all the otherworldly developments.

Paramount and Nickelodeon Movies present a Kennedy/Marshall and a Mark Canton production
Director: Mark Waters
Screenwriters: Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, John Sayles
Based on the books by: Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
Producers: Mark Canton, Larry Franco, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Karey Kirkpatrick
Executive producers: Julia Pistor, Tony DiTerlizzi, Holly Black
Director of photography: Caleb Deschanel
Production designer: James Bissell
Music: James Horner
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Editor: Michael Kahn
Simon/Jared: Freddie Highmore
Helen: Mary-Louise Parker
Mallory: Sarah Bolger
Aunt Lucinda: Joan Plowright
Arthur Spiderwick: David Strathairn
Mulgarath: Nick Nolte
Hogsqueal: Seth Rogen
Thimbletack: Martin Short
Running time -- 92 minutes
MPAA rating: PG