Various winged, fanged, and occasionally shimmering thingies from an unseen world manifest themselves in The Spiderwick Chronicles. There’s an ogre, a bunch of goblins, a whole lot of fairies, and a house brownie who turns green when angry. These are the nonhuman denizens of a suitably rambling, isolated storybook house that has passed down the family from Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) to a soon-to-be-divorced mom (Mary-Louise Parker) with the telegraphic last name of Grace, her teen daughter, Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and younger twins Jared (the angrier, adventurous one) and Simon (the milder, prissier one; both are played by Freddie Highmore).
To be honest, the magical population is kind of dull — average fantasy creatures (some voiced by Martin Short, Seth Rogen, and Nick Nolte), conjured with standard CGI wizardry in a fancy-grade adaptation from popular children’s books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. They’re kind of imitative, too — doesn’t The Hulk hold the copyright on the green-with-rage issue?
But critters aren’t really what the movie is about — otherwise why bring in Mark Waters to direct? After Mean Girls and Freaky Friday, Waters has become a specialist in lively dramas built on family tensions and kid-on-kid turf tussling. And his production is most alive when it ignores the gremlin contingent and goes for the real horrors, which are: (1) Mom and Dad are getting divorced; and (2) Mom doesn’t believe her kids when they tell her of the troubles they’ve seen. (Parker is a pro at embodying female distractibility.)
Spiderwick is set in the present, but goes for an overall design look of dainty, cozy, William Morris-y arts-andcraftiness. After Finding Neverland, that tinge of nostalgia has become a Freddie Highmore thespian specialty. Yet the actor, now 16, is never more affecting than when he, as Jared, fumes with contemporary resentment about the gremlins that have split up his parents and forced him beyond the protective boundaries that once encircled his kid-size universe. B-