It's an awesome time to be an elf, dragon, wizard or some other fantastic creature: Hollywood can't stop making movies about them.
The latest addition to the canon of Man and the Magical World is Mark Water's The Spiderwick Chronicles, adapted from the popular series of children's books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.
The trouble starts when the Grace family -- mom (Mary-Louise Parker), teen-age Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and twin boys Simon and Jared (both portrayed by Freddie Highmore) -- moves to the country and takes up residence in a weird old house bequeathed by a couple of mysterious relatives.
They've barely dropped their suitcases when a wall collapses; a secret research room is discovered; a chest unlocked; and the impetuous Jared has pried the "do not read" seal off a book titled "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You."
Also in the lab, Jared encounters a diminutive, elf-like "brownie," Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), who warns him that a shape-shifting ogre named Mulgarath will stop at nothing to acquire this book. Apparently, opening the guide has re-invigorated a long dormant struggle between man and other.
Jared and Simon plunge head-first into the dense woods beyond, where all manner of computer-generated beasties materialize. There are bad guys: goblins, who resemble toads on steroids; their leader, distinguished by his Napoleonic garb (beats me); and the mega-baddie Mulgarath, portrayed when in humanoid form by Nick Nolte. But the lads also find an ally in Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen), a porcine blowhard.
The film chugs along quite rapidly through its compact 90 minutes, as the Grace kids try to outrun and outwit Mulgarath. On the upside, this should hold kids firmly in their seats; on the downside, the rush gives short shrift to the mysterious.
That there's an invisible world of other creatures is instantly accepted. And since most of the magical encounters are vis-à-vis danger to advance the breathless plot, we're never formally introduced to the lovely flowery fairies that make a cameo. Nor do we learn much about a griffin that pops up conveniently, or even whether the ethereal sprites who once spirited away Arthur Spiderwick are good or bad.
We also don't hear much about the setting's non-otherworldly qualities. I haven't read the books, so I'm not sure whether they explore this issue, but I wondered why the film didn't explicate how the natural world we can see might engender wonder in children, especially such city slickers as this lot. Isn't discovering a spider spinning a web, or particularly bizarre toadstool, pretty neat stuff that the over-stimulated video generation may need coaxing to see? Ultimately, the Grace children's only relationship with the wonderful woods beyond their home seems simply to be ridding it of weird varmints.
Starts Thu., Feb. 14.