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‘Spiderwick Chronicles’ fair but not quite fantastic
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Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore, left) is helped by Hogsqueal (the voice of Seth Rogen, right) to locate dangerous invisible creatures in “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”
Based on the series of best-selling children’s books, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” sets out to enchant audiences this weekend and claim a share of the lucrative young adult fantasy market energized by the Harry Potter franchise and the ongoing film adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books.

The story places the largely dysfunctional Grace family in what amounts to a classic creepy old house in the dark woods.

Jared and his twin brother Simon (played by Freddie Highmore), along with their sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and their mother (Mary-Louise Parker) move into a mansion that once belonged to their great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathaim).

Almost immediately, strange things begin happening – and Jared gets the lions’ share of the blame until he makes an interesting discovery. Turns out Spiderwick had spent his time cataloguing creatures inhabiting the woods ... but this isn’t a run-of-the-mill field guide. Actually, it’s “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You,” a reference book documenting all the various forms of faeries that coexist with the visible world but prefer to remain unseen.

Though the book proves enlightening to the children, its existence places the world it details in grave danger. Jared and his siblings spend much of the film trying to keep the book from falling into the hands of evil creatures who would use its secrets to destroy everything.

Highmore carries this film, filled with what has become garden-variety CGI fantasy fauna. In his dual role as Jared and Simon, he manages to make the characters decisively different on screen, so much so that the viewer forgets it’s the same actor. Bolger’s Mallory is less developed and seems little more than a two-dimensional nagging big sister through much of the action.

Nick Nolte makes a brief appearance and provides the voice-over for the nasty Mulgarath, leader of the goblins. Nolte imbues the human face of the shapeshifting creature with a sinister aspect that is far more menacing than anything computer animation can deliver.

Another highlight of the movie is the appearance of Joan Plowright as Aunt Lucinda. Plowright, an English actress and the widow of Laurence Olivier, is best known for films such as “Brimstone and Treacle,” “Enchanted April” and “Tea With Mussolini.” It’s really Lucinda’s story – her lifelong separation from her father, Spiderwick – that gives “The Spiderwick Chronicles” a heart.

While it will appeal to younger audiences, adults may frequently find the direction of the story predictable and the special effects overemphasized. The plot moves quickly, as might be anticipated considering that the filmmakers chose to condense all five books into one film. Generally, unbroken pacing is favorable, but in this case the audience can’t help but wonder what has been omitted.

Aside from an overabundance of lackluster CGI creatures and the abridgment of key subplots, kids will find that “The Spiderwick Chronicles” offers a rousing story, some convincing acting and an occasional moment of unclouded wonderment.
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