[Screen It]

(2008) (Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger) (PG)

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Adventure: After moving into their great-great uncle's long abandoned home, a trio of young siblings must contend with the fantastical creatures that are awakened when they open their ancestor's powerful field journal.
Things haven't been easy for the Grace family. Helen (MARY-LOUISE PARKER) and Richard (ANDREW McCARTHY) have split up, with her taking the kids -- twins Jared (FREDDIE HIGHMORE) and Simon (FREDDIE HIGHMORE) and their older sister Mallory (SARAH BOLGER) -- and moving into the long-abandoned manor once owned by her great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (DAVID STRATHAIRN).

Eighty year earlier, he had become obsessed with cataloguing all of the strange creatures he had discovered living in both the surrounding wounds and inside the house. Yet, his findings became ever more dangerous, eventually leading to his disappearance while saving his young daughter from those beings. With no one believing her account of what happened to her father, the now 80-something Lucinda (JOAN PLOWRIGHT) has spent most of her life institutionalized.

With Jared rebelling over the uprooting of their family, he doesn't pay heed to warnings on Arthur's old field journal not to open it. Nor does he pay attention to a more recent warning written in some dust, directly addressed to him. All of which greatly worries "brownie" house faerie Thimbletack (voice of MARTIN SHORT), a tiny being prone to blowing up like a puffer fish when irritated.

The appointed keeper of the journal and its secrets, he knows that no good will come of Jared opening it. Indeed, his doing so has awakened the goblins that reside in the adjacent woods and work for Mulgarath (NICK NOLTE), a shape-shifting ogre that wants the field journal as Arthur's previous findings could make him all-powerful.

With the help of bird-eating hobgoblin Hogsqueal (voice of SETH ROGEN), the kids eventually realize what they've unleashed as well as what's at stake, and then set out to prevent Mulgarath and his minions from gaining possession of the journal.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth, sent by Zeus to counteract Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans. She was entrusted with a simple box, but warned never to open it. Like the proverbial curious cat, however, she did, unleashing plagues and sorrows across the world.

That theme is the jumping off point for "The Spiderwick Chronicles," a modern-day, live-action adventure flick based on the popular literary series by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. In it, a young boy (Freddie Highmore) doesn't open a literal four-sided container, but does do the "Pandora's Box" bit with a field journal he finds in an old house he now begrudgingly calls home.

His mom (Mary-Louise Parker) has moved him, his twin (also played by Highmore) and older sister (Sarah Bolger) to the long abandoned home formerly owned by Helen's great uncle (David Straithairn) following her breakup with her cheating husband (Andrew McCarthy). Jared is acting up because of this, and thus doesn't pay heed to stories of his great aunt (Joan Plowright) having supposedly gone crazy in the house, or warnings on his great-great uncle's field journal, or in nearby dust on the floor, not to open it.

"Do not dare to read this book for if you take one fateful look you barter at your life's expense and face a deadly consequence" reads the ominous intimation, and its rhyming structure indicates -- at least to viewers -- that rather than treading in the traditional horror genre, we're more likely traipsing in some sort of fantasy environment.

Yet, rather than unleashing arachnids as the title might suggest to those uninitiated with DiTerlizzi and Black's literary work -- the title stems from the great-great uncle's surname -- the breaking of the seal on and then subsequent opening of the journal results in the awakening of a world of faeries. And we're not talking about the likes of Tinkerbell, but rather beings that could be straight out of the realm of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings.

In other words, there's a plethora of odd creatures, friend and foe alike. The former arrive in the form of a "brownie" (voiced by Martin Short) who's obviously not one-hundred percent efficient in protecting the journal and is prone to blowing up like a puffer fish when irritated (although honey soothes the savage beast within him). Then there's a hobgoblin (voiced by Seth Rogen) whose trustworthiness is TBD, with a taste for anything with wings.

His regular goblin brethren are the henchmen for the number one baddie, a shape-shifting evildoer (voiced by the gravely-voiced Nick Nolte) who wants the field journal as it contains everything he needs to conquer the world. Fortunately for the journal's keeper and the kids, there's a magic circle around the house that serves as an invisible force field and keeps all of the bad guys -- which are otherwise invisible save for some interesting ways to see them -- at bay.

Throw in a griffin, plant faeries, a monstrous troll, a time-frozen nirvana-based purgatory, various familial issues and more, and it isn't hard to see we're dealing with an intricate and richly woven plot. Thankfully, director Mark Waters -- working from Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles' adaptation of the source material -- keeps things from getting too confusing for newbies (although a quick twins reference would have helped the initially perplexing Highmore dual role issue) and certainly ups the ante in terms of pacing once the exposition is out of the way.

What then follows might be a little too intense for younger viewers (not to mention the PG rating), but older kids and even adults might get a kick out of the offering, especially the fantasy-based adventure that dominates the second half. While purposefully not epic in stature like the "Potter" and "Rings" flicks, the film works in its smaller scale, decently mixing action, frights and some comedy. "The Spiderwick Chronicles" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed February 5, 2008 / Posted February 14, 2008

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