Freddie Highmore adds to his extensive prepubescent resumé with The Spiderwick Chronicles, an engaging and occasionally touching fantasy that's refreshing for what it isn't: a 21st century Jumanji. Playing twins, the young actor shows veteran maturity by giving them distinct personalities, instead of forcing audiences to differentiate them by the color of their shirts. That Highmore's work takes top billing in this analysis, rather than the film's fantasy world and digital creature effects, is not a slight to that world or those effects -- rather, it explains why The Spiderwick Chronicles is a bit more memorable than other fantasies intended for a tween audience. There's a solid emotional core here, to complement the sprites and goblins that literally come out of the woodwork when Jared Grace disregards the warnings and opens the titular tome. Feeling abandoned by an absent father, Jared carries on a bristling relationship with his mother (Mary-Louise Parker), and some genuine anguish passes between their characters. Perhaps this injection of realism can be attributed to indie filmmaker John Sayles, whose surprise screenwriting credit may have something to do with the actor cast to play Arthur Spiderwick: David Strathairn, Sayles' longtime collaborator. Fans of the popular books that inspired the film (authored by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi) should be pretty happy with the way director Mark S. Waters has visualized the design details of this world. The entries in Spiderwick's Field Guide place the viewer in a willing mythozoological mindset, and the characters that spring forth -- while not drastically different from those seen in other films indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien -- are lively enough to help shape and build the story's mythology. The film's February release may have prevented it from growing into a bigger hit, but The Spiderwick Chronicles is satisfying escapism with a lingering presence.
by Derek Armstrong review