Based on the popular string of books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, this goes to places where most other children's fantasy films of recent years -- the Harry Potters, The Golden Compass, Narnia, Lemony Snicket -- haven't bothered to stay focused on. It's about real people who are caught up in strange situations, but who are anchored by family problems that keep bubbling up under all of the adventure around them.
Yes, this one enters into the realms of the fantastic -- three kids riding a huge gryphon off into the skies is no everyday event -- but just let go and come along for the ride the film provides.
It opens with a sepia-tinted sequence in which science dabbler Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), holed up in his study, puts the finishing touches on his life's work -- a field guide about the fantastical creatures, most of them friendly, some of them to be feared, that live in hiding among us.
The film quickly jumps ahead 80 years to when the remnants of the Grace family -- mom (Mary-Louise Parker), daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twin boys (both played by Freddie Highmore) -- are moving in to the creepy old Spiderwick mansion, with dad staying in Manhattan to start his own new life, while they start theirs.
A snapshot of them would reveal that quiet Simon is a pacifist, angry Jared is curious and "doesn't do conflict," anxious Mallory would rather practice her fencing than deal with her brothers, and shattered mom just wants to keep the peace.
It's Jared, thought of as the family troublemaker, who finds the plastered-over dumb waiter that takes him to Great Great Uncle Arthur's study, where he finds a key, a trunk, the big old field guide within it, and a personalized note warning him, "Don't look inside."
Of course he opens it -- heck, I would -- and that simple act, much like the recitation of forbidden words in Evil Dead 2, unleashes some nastiness upon the world. It lets loose, as Jared is soon told by a weird little creature named Thimbletack (voice of Martin Short), an army of goblins (disgusting little toad-like creatures), led by the vile Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), who can rule the world if he learns the knowledge in the book.
The basic plot, with all kinds of twists and turns shooting out of it, never goes much beyond good versus evil. It's really all of the little ingredients meshing with and bouncing off of each other that make the film shine. There are superb twin effects, with Simon and Jared regularly sharing the frame, and British actor Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Golden Compass) excellent in both roles, perfect American accent and all.
There's a plethora of creatures, from the brownie Thimbletack to the hobgoblin Hogsqueal (voice of Seth Rogen) -- both of whom provide much comic relief -- and plumes of sylphs that resemble an explosion of spent dandelions. But there's also the gallery of human characters, from the core family to offshoots including elderly Great Aunt Lucinda Spiderwick (Joan Plowright).
Though there are, among other wondrous things, a protective circle around the old house, secret tunnels to safety, and a larder filled with stores of honey, salt and tomato sauce (their secrets will not be revealed here), danger is always waiting, malevolence is in the air, and things get pretty darn scary.
Yet it's the family issues, mainly the emotional effects of divorce, taking equal precedence with the good-evil business, that push this beyond being just another epic fantasy film. But then here comes that gryphon, and there goes another incredible visual effect from Industrial Light & amp; Magic, and -- watch out -- when things go awry and there's an invasion of the house, it's just like a scene out of The Birds, only the attackers are far larger and nastier than Hitchcock's.
But the best thing about it all is that even though so much is crammed into the film, the storytelling never feels rushed. The tale is complete and extremely satisfying for all.