The formula appears as soon as the opening credits have wrapped: there’s a divorced mother, with one teen son who’s dutiful, and his twin brother, resentful and rebellious. The mother is at her wits’ end, and there’s a daughter who meets her troublesome kid brother head-on. They arrive at new home, which was willed from a distant relative and is apparently somewhere outside of Manhattan – though this Gothic/Victorian place looks fresh out of a storybook. It’s surrounded by a thick forest that is more likely to be a home to strange beings than woodland wildlife.
The family dynamic in “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” which is based on a series of young-adult novels of the same name, is commonplace in children’s fantasy. As the family makes itself at home, the troublesome son, Jared (Freddy Highmore), becomes restless when he’s thought to be the cause of a variety of problems, from his sister’s missing award medal to a torn-down wall that reveals an old dumbwaiter. But in the house Jared senses something strange, or even wicked, and lifts himself up via the dumbwaiter to a hidden attic. Here his suspicions are proved true, as he meets a tiny fellow, vermin-like but genial, named Timbletack who becomes a convoy into a hidden fantasy world.
Martin Short voices Timbletack to give the movie a humorous boost away from the humdrum family issues. Timbletack is a jittery little guy who’s worried about a book hidden in the house that is sought by evil ogres in the woods. But when angry, he swells into a green little goblin, until he downs some honey that soothes and de-Hulk-ifies him. So, Jared thinks, that’s why the kitchen’s full of honey jars. (The plot will later reveal why tomato sauce and salt are also well-stocked.)
Once “Spiderwick” gets to the fantasy, the story gets going. Timbletack’s angered state hints to the approaching orges out in the woods who are after the said text, which was written by Arthur Spiderwick (Jared’s great-great-uncle; David Strathairn) and is soon discovered by Jared in the attic. The book details all the varieties of hidden fairies and nasties hidden in everyday nature and the methods of finding them. The movie reveals these creatures with some well-ingrained CGI that makes the visuals appealing for young and adult viewers. Things turn ugly when the ogres come for the prized book, which they will use to eradicate every creature in described in Spiderwick’s manual.
The plot that follows makes for a diverting little fantasy that can’t quite leave a lasting impression. The visual flourishes, especially of flying sylphs and awakening poesies, keep things lively but cannot break the conventional mold on which the movie is structured. But, of course, this won’t mean much to the kids. They will have fun watching Jared with bro and sis fly off on a griffin in a scene that recalls all the joy and wonder of the classic fantasy, “The Neverending Story.” (In playing both brothers, Freddy Highmore had a big job and seemed to have trouble keeping his native accent hidden. But the kid who charmed us in “Finding Neverland” makes his roles endearing.)
The ogreish bad guys aren’t too much for young viewers, since these ogres are pretty cartoonish. But things get scarier when one morphs into a vicious raven. Another shapeshifts into an immense goblin that, truth be told, looks like the Grinch on steroids. (Adults are in for a laugh when the head ogre appears in the form of – Nick Nolte! Talk about typecasting.) Jared and his sibs are aided by a four-nostriled hog (voiced by Seth Rogen), who goes for laughs when Martin Short’s little avatar is offscreen.
All these animated characters can’t distract viewers from a disappointing finish. Believe it or not, John Sayles is one of the credited screenwriters, but I doubt that the author of “Lone Star” contributed to this convenient ending.