- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 17, 2008

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on www.commonsensemedia.org.

‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’

Rating: PG

Common Sense Media: On. For ages 8 and older.

**** (out of five stars)

Running time: 97 minutes

Common Sense review: When recently separated mom Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) inherits a “creepy old mansion in the middle of nowhere,” her three children have different reactions: Mallory (Sarah Bolger) is understanding, Simon (Freddie Highmore) is cautiously optimistic, and his twin, Jared (also played by Freddie) is furious. They soon discover that their great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) unlocked the secrets to the magical realm that exists unseen around humans. When Jared disobeys a “beware” note and opens Spiderwick’s 80-year-old field guide, he attracts the dangerous attention of goblins and their dark ogre leader, Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte) to the Grace family.

Freddie — an expressive, gentle-faced young actor in the mold of Haley Joel Osment — does a fine job handling the twin brothers’ disparate personalities. Likewise, Sarah, who co-starred in “In America,” is great as a big sister who knows her way around swords. (She’s an award-winning fencer.) Both actors propel the film forward as children caught up in a sometimes frightening fantasy world. The goblins and head ogre are scary without being terrifying like the orcs in “The Lord of the Rings,” and there are two memorably silly sidekicks: the tiny, honey-loving house brownie Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short) and the gross-out bird-hunting goblin Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen). Both considerably lighten the dark mood and will be beloved by younger viewers.

Those expecting a sophisticated CGI spectacle a la Peter Jackson or Robert Zemeckis may leave the theater disappointed. Director Mark Waters isn’t aiming for a George Lucas-style epic employing revolutionary technology. His vivid adaptation of author Holly Black and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi’s award-winning book series conveys magic with shots of swirling, flying dandelions carrying Arthur Spiderwick or colorful flowers turning into sprites. With an engaging script co-written by John Sayles, Mr. Waters has managed to adapt a children-as-heroes story that parents will be happy to sit through without snoozing. When it comes to family films, that counts for a lot.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that this fantasy adventure has been promoted aggressively on Nickelodeon — which helped produce the movie. Even without the heavy rotation of commercials and cereal tie-ins, fans of the best-selling book series will want to see this big-screen adaptation; expect children as young as 5 to express interest.

The under-7 crowd might be scared by a couple of intense sequences involving the goblins, head ogre Mulgarath and the Grace children, who get hurt in the action. Although the movie is connected to merchandising deals with a few products, there isn’t that much product placement in the film itself. There’s also no age-inappropriate language or sexuality.

Families can talk about the movie’s themes. How do they compare to the themes of other fantasy movies and books? Which specific books or movies does this one remind them of? Why? If children have read the Spiderwick books, ask them what changes they noticed. Was the film better than they expected? Families also can ask why Jared was accountable for figuring out how to defend his family from the ogre’s wrath. Why are children rarely believed by adults in fantasy movies? Who does believe the children?

Sexual content: Mallory tells her brothers that their father has “found someone else” and is living with the woman.

Language alert: Minor usage.

Violence alert: Siblings bicker and call each other names; Hogsqueal catches and eats birds of all sizes; the ogre Mulgarath shape-shifts from human to monster form. The goblins hurt all three children, leaving bloody marks on their legs and bodies. The climactic battle scene is pretty intense and can be frightening.

Social behavior alert: Jared learns how to take responsibility for unlocking the fantasy world that puts his family in danger. He also realizes he has to give his mother a chance and that it’s not her fault her marriage fell apart. Mallory is a fearless fencer who can defend herself and her younger brothers. Many films dismiss or make fun of the elderly, but this movie makes 86-year-old Aunt Lucinda instrumental in saving the Grace family.

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