- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fairies and other mystical creatures live all around us. You just need a magical stone to see them — or a face full of fairy regurgitation.

“The Spiderwick Chronicles,” opening today and adapted from the popular children’s books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, surely will entice young viewers with such Nickelodeon-friendly slime. Even older types won’t mind sticking around until the credits. The film’s relatable cast and spiffy special effects make it easy to take.

Even more impressionable young minds will be onto a new topic on the drive home from the theater.

The Grace children — Jared; his twin brother, Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore of “Finding Neverland”) and Mallory (Sarah Bolger) — have just moved into an old house with their mother (Mary-Louise Parker, the pot-dealing mom on Showtime’s “Weeds”).

The youngsters aren’t happy about the move. Their mother just divorced their father and in the process uprooted the children far away from their former neighborhood.

Young Jared retreats to the new home’s attic, where he finds an old book tied with fraying string … and a warning.

The precocious lad cracks the book anyway.

That book was written by Jared’s great uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (the ever-versatile David Strathairn), who documented the fairy world within its pages. However, Arthur’s research led to his disappearance — or so we were told during a terrific prologue — and evil forces would love to get their hands on what he wrote.

Merely by opening it, Jared unwittingly unleashes an ogre (Nick Nolte, both in the flesh and also with his voice alone) and his minions, who storm the house to get the book’s secrets. Good thing the house is encircled by a protective spell that keeps the marauders at bay.

But how long can the spell last? The looming threat doesn’t stop the children from bickering incessantly or hurling insults at their mother. Poor Miss Parker has as thankless a role as you can find in a kiddie picture: the adult who won’t believe a word her children say.

Director Mark Waters (2004’s “Mean Girls”) stages some crisp action sequences early on. Even adults will sit up straight as the creatures come ever closer to the Graces’ home.

Likewise, Joan Plowright looks suitably dazed as the family aunt who met the fairies years earlier and subsequently was delivered to a sanitarium for saying too much about them.

Overall, everything about “Chronicles” smacks of second-rate “Harry Potter.” The whimsical creatures, from Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) to Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen of “Knocked Up”) look and feel recycled from previous fantasy epics.

The film’s final moments, when James Horner’s bright score swells to its zenith, won’t leave anyone misty-eyed.

“The Spiderwick Chronicles” moves fast and offers enough imagination to keep viewers engaged, but it’s unlikely even youngsters will be clamoring to revisit the Graces’ house in a future “Chronicle.”

**1/2

TITLE: “The Spiderwick Chronicles”

RATING: PG (Action, disturbing imagery and some scares)

CREDITS: Directed by Mark Waters. Written by Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles from the novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.

RUNNING TIME: 97 minutes

WEB SITE: www.spiderwickchronicles.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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