Genre: Family fantasy with teeth
The pitch: Young Mallory, Jared and Simon Grace (Sarah Bolger, and Freddie Highmore playing twins) stop worrying about their parents' separation when moody Jared discovers an ancestor's field guide to magical creatures. The trouble is, a vicious ogre and his army of goblins want the book for themselves.
Money shots: Mallory's fencing classes come in handy when she defends herself from toadlike hopping goblins. Mallory and Jared outrun a troll who erupts through a main-street man hole. The gorgeous CGI fairies resemble dandelions and other flowers. Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) creates chills when small, unseen creatures stalk the heroes in dusty rooms or leafy paths.
Voice cameos: While this is a live-action movie, Knocked Up's Seth Rogen voices a gluttonous hobgoblin named Hobsqueal and Martin Short speaks for Thimbletack, a diminutive brownie with Hulk-like rage issues. Nick Nolte's grizzled "live" appearance is nearly as scary as his CGI alter ego when he voices the ogre.
Gross-outs: The hobgoblin spits in the kids' faces to give them the ability to see invisible creatures. The goblins have icky-green blood that leaves copious stains, especially when they besiege the house at the end. (Maybe the film used magic to escape a PG-13 rating.)
Pop references: "How is the Addams Family mansion?" asks Jared's absent father (Andrew McCarthy). "Thanks, Spock. You're a credit to the Federation," Mallory tells her bookish brother Simon.
Product placement: Jared uses LG headphones to tune out a hypnotic spell. Morton Salt proves instrumental in the Grace family's final defense.
Better than the books? Close. The film version doesn't just compress the five-part series by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi; it accelerates it to an exciting, breathless adventure with little of the books' magical mysteries. Fortunately, the script doesn't sugarcoat the books' darker, almost Oedipal themes about broken homes.
The bottom line: Too intense and violent for pretweens, The Spiderwick Chronicles evokes 1980s family adventures like Gremlins and The Goonies without being quite so obnoxious. Plus, in the wake of Harry Potter and zillions of other films based on English fantasy books, it's nice to see one with American origins and texture. 3 stars
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