Monday, February 25, 2008

The Fantasy of "Spiderwick Chronicles" Charms

*** out of ****

"The Spiderwick Chronicles" is another book-to-screen outing, but unlike the rest, this one stands out. Fatigued after all of the fantasy novel adaptations from last year alone, high-profile films such as "The Golden Compass," "The Seeker: The Dark is Rising" and "Stardust" were all shunned by audiences. With rushed starts, abrupt stops and confusion all around, "Spiderwick" shakes things up by letting the viewers take a breath without skimping on the CGI warfare.

Rated PG, "Spiderwick" does have some genuinely scary moments, but this is one that the whole family can enjoy.

Based on the five-part, best-selling kids' series, the film is a faithful adaptation which combines all of the books into one presentation.

The story starts with Helen Grace (Mary Louise-Parker) moving the family to the dilapidated Spiderwick Estate after her divorce. The estate was inherited from her great-great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). Oldest daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger), who enjoys fencing, and her bookish, pacifist brother Simon (Freddy Highmore) are supportive of their distraught mother and the move. Simon's identical twin, Jared, (also played by Freddy Highmore) isn't as supportive. Adventurous, curious and headstrong, Jared is upset with his mother and would rather live with his father.

The action starts quickly when Jared finds Arthur's secret laboratory and discovers a strange old book. The book, which has a "do not open" note attached, turns out to be a field guide of the magical world around the estate and the secrets of the mysterious creatures in the surrounding woods. Jared soon becomes a believer after he meets Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a small, hamster-like man who was Arthur's assistant.

Simon also becomes aware of this mystical world with strange occurrences, though Mallory and their mom are not yet convinced. The twins learn that the evil shape-shifting ogre leader, Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), will stop at nothing to retrieve the book to become even more deadly. Mallory and mom soon become believers when the house is attacked by frog-like goblins.

Unlike most fantasy films, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" doesn't hold back -- goblins not only chase the kids, but also claw and stab to the point of cuts and bruises. With many evil and hideous creatures, there are also helpful ones such as the hog-looking Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen), and flower-like fairies who help with the fight in an action-packed CGI sequence.

Known from his Lindsay Lohan hits "Freaky Friday" and "Mean Girls," director Mark Waters enters new territory and is just as successful. Waters has stunning and majestic imagery filled with CGI creatures and live-action actors intertwining beautifully making this one a must to see in the theaters -- or IMAX, where it also is being shown.

Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles wrote the welcoming screenplay from Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's novels. It leaves no confusion and a longer exposition to create character depth, adding a much bigger impact when it comes time for the final result.

"Weeds" star Mary Louise-Parker takes the backseat playing the caring-but-unaware mom.

The real star of "Spiderwick" is the young and very talented British actor Freddie Highmore ("Finding Neverland," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") who sports a decent American accent. Highmore, who acts both roles, amazingly creates two very separate characters as if they were played by different performers.

The animation department deserves recognition for the stunning visuals, as do Short and Rogen for being the friendly and likeable voices of their unique characters.

Working as a stand-alone film, with a nicely closed ending, "Spiderwick" isn't the next "Harry Potter" or "Narnia," but there is still so much adventure and fun, you would want to go back for another round.

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