With character names like Hogsqueal, Mulgarath and Thimbletack, it's got to be derivative. So it's not altogether surprising that Mark Waters' ("Freaky Friday," "Mean Girls") adaptation of "The Spiderwick Chronicles" suffers slightly from that not-so-fresh feeling.
Based on the children's fantasy series by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, it's the story of what happens to a trio of kids-in-trouble when their newly single mom moves them from New York to a crumbling, fairy-infested Victorian mansion in the country -- where they soon run afoul of the local ogre.
Waters' version, which was adapted for the screen by Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berenbaum and John Sayles, is mercifully short on the childlike wonder. Instead, this somewhat generic but action-packed movie focuses largely on the chase.
Freddie Highmore stars as twins Jared and Simon Grace (the angry one and the gentle one, respectively), whose father (a barely glimpsed Andrew McCarthy) has just left their mother, Helen (Mary-Louise Parker), for another woman. After the separation, Helen takes the twins and their sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) to live in the house she's inherited from her great aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright), now locked up in a mental institution for insisting that her father was abducted by fairies.
The Graces notice something strange about the house from the outset. The window sills are covered in salt, and the kitchen shelves are lined with honey, oatmeal and tomato sauce. The honey, Jared soon learns, is earmarked for the brownie Thimbletack (a CGI version of Martin Short), the house goblin, who, 80 years earlier, was charged with protecting Arthur Spiderwick's "Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You."
Jared soon discovers the book, a compendium of fairyland secrets that the shape-shifting ogre Mulgarath would very much like to get his hands on, hidden in the secret laboratory of his great-great-uncle (David Strathairn). The book is labeled with a dire warning that Jared promptly disregards, making way for the goblins of the forest -- looking a lot like those germs in cold medicine commercials -- to begin their assault.
Mulgarath, who briefly takes the shape of a shambling, flame-eyed Nick Nolte, captures Simon but promises to spare the boy and his family, provided they bring him the book. But the hobgoblin Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen as a wart hog with four nostrils) sets Jared straight on this issue. Not only will Mulgarath kill them once the book is in his possession, but he'll kill the rest of the fairyland fauna, too. So the Grace siblings set out to find the long-gone Arthur Spiderwick, the only man who can destroy the "Field Guide."
In creating a fantasy world in which CGI goblins, fairies, sprites and griffins interact with humans, Waters has been greatly aided by his director of photography Caleb Deschanel and production designer James Bissell. As special-effects driven as the film is, the trio manages to create a naturalistic, appealing world that will nonetheless likely scare the average 5-year-old silly. (Tomato sauce, it turns out, has the same effect on a goblin as hydrochloric acid has on a George Romero zombie.)
As for the cast, Parker wrests can-do cheeriness from depressed exhaustion before collapsing into mopiness again. Bolger rallies to keep up the appearance of normalcy for mom, and Highmore is impressive as yin-yang twins. Strathairn doesn't quite have the pro- fessor/mad scientist/sorcerer thing going for him, though. You keep wanting to see Alan Rickman in the role. Personally, I kept wishing for another scene with Mulgarath in the form of Nolte, because, well, you can never have enough Nolte, and because his particular brand of kinetic insanity would have been just what the movie needed to shake up its clockwork smoothness. Instead, for his big finish, Mulgarath takes on a shape that hits closer to home. Which makes sense. After all, the most transporting fantasy in "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is that which distracts the Grace kids from the pain of their parents' divorce -- the more it resembles a theme park ride, the better.
"The Spiderwick Chronicles." MPAA rating: PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. In general release.