The Spiderwick Chronicles
R E V I E W   B Y   R I C H   C L I N E dir Mark Waters
scr Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum, John Sayles
with Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger, Mary-Louise Parker, Joan Plowright, David Strathairn, Nick Nolte, Martin Short, Seth Rogen, Jordy Benattar, Andrew McCarthy, Tod Fennell, Mariah Inger
release US 14.Feb.08, UK 21.Mar.08
08/US Paramount1h35
The Spiderwick Chronicles
The fantastical world: Highmore, Bolger and Highmore (above); Nolte and his alter ego (below)
The Spiderwick Chronicles

parker plowright strathairn
The Spiderwick Chronicles A jolt of personality and above-average effects make this kids' fantasy adventure entertaining enough to overcome the cliches in its premise.

Twins Jared and Simon (both played by Highmore) and their sister Mallory (Bolger) aren't happy to move from New York to a rattling family mansion in the middle of nowhere, although their newly single mother (Parker) is determined to make the best of it. Then Jared stumbles across the Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, a notebook by great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn) that opens Jared's eyes to the world of goblins, sprites and the evil ogre Mulgarath (Nolte) who'll do anything to get that book.

The screenplay zips through the set-up so it can get on with the action, an all-out war against Mulgarath and his henchmen. The kids are assisted by an ill-tempered house boggart (Short) and an easily distracted hobgoblin (Rogen), two colourfully comical characters who keep us chuckling even when things get frantic and scary. And that they do, thanks to Caleb Deschanel's sharp cinematography and complex effects that are seamlessly woven into even the speediest handheld sequences.

So we can forgive the story its corny build-up, the strained emotions in the rather cliched broken-family situation, the barmy old woman (Plowright) who clearly knows more than anyone expects, and a few moments of pretty on-screen magic that have little to do with the plot. At least the action scenes are sure-handed and surprisingly edgy, never more than a child could handle, but pretty unsettling at times as the threat of injury or even death hovers over the central characters.

The cast is excellent, with Highmore once again hitting all the right notes, this time in an intriguing dual role as brothers with opposite personalities. Bolger is feisty and energetic as their big sis, conveniently trained in fencing to add a bit of swash and buckle. And Nolte's brief on-screen appearance as the shape-shifting Mulgarth is even creepier than the grotesque animated version. But the thing that makes this film better than the usual too-slick family adventure is the way the filmmakers allow messy bits of attitude to seep out of the characters. This is what carries us along for the ride.

cert pg themes, violence 24.Feb.08

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© 2008 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall