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Movies: ‘Spiderwick’ never ceases to entertain

By Trevor Hale

“The Spiderwick Chronicles”ParamountWritten by David Berenbaum, John Sayles and Karey Kirkpatrick, based on the novels by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi

Directed by Mark WatersStarring Freddy Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Sarah Bolger and Nick Nolte

Rated PG/97 minutesOpens Feb. 143 stars

Ever since the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies hit box office gold, the search for “the next big thing” in children’s books has been underway.

Producers, no doubt, began scouring the bedrooms of children looking for what might turn into the next hit. What they found was a series of books called “The Spiderwick Chronicles” and the race to the big screen was on. Only this time, perhaps, having learned that kids have a tough time sitting through a three-hour-plus movie (or several three-hour-plus movies, for that matter), director Mark Waters condensed five books into one nearly great kids movie.

“Spiderwick” opens with Jared Grace (Freddy Highmore) forced to leave New York with his newly divorced mom (Mary-Louise Parker), sarcastic older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and his self-proclaimed pacifist twin brother, Simon (also played by Highmore). When the family arrives at their new home — an old Victorian mansion in a rural, heavily wooded area — we get a glimpse of Jared’s teenage angst (something that gets him blamed for a series of pranks that happen on the family’s first night in the house).

When Jared hears a noise emanating from one of the mansion’s walls, he attacks the wall with a broom, opening a hole that leads to a mysterious, hidden elevator.

Of course, Jared enters the elevator while his two siblings look on without interest. Eventually, Jared discovers a secret room with an old book written by his great, great uncle that tells of an enchanted realm right outside their door inhabited by elves, goblins and boggarts.

Of course, no one believes Jared until things begin to go south and both Simon and Mallory are forced to believe him to save themselves from the evil, shape-shifting goblin king Mulgarath (Nick Nolte).

“Spiderwick” hits a lot of obvious plot points that most children’s books adapted for the screen do, such as Jared’s anger toward his mother, his sister’s perpetual condescension and, of course, his mother’s refusal to believe a word her kids say until it’s almost too late. However, “Spiderwick” hits these points with more sly humor and character development than others, and thanks to dual A-plus performances by Highmore and the remainder of the cast, everything that happens in “Spiderwick” is utterly believable.

The filmmakers are careful to establish a good set of rules that the enchanted world must follow. Although they stray from most of the books’ riddles and rhymes, the writers manage to get a few in when the story calls for it. The strange world outside the house is gradually introduced, which is nice in that the viewer doesn’t feel bombarded with too much too soon. Each time a new character is introduced, it’s for a specific reason, and Waters knows how long he needs to spend with each character and when to cut away, back to the heart of the story, which consists of the three siblings in way over their heads.

There are a few instances wherein the film slips, drifting off into the “seen it before” territory that every kids movie falls into. The angry kid/single parent territory has been done to death and feels a bit distracting, but Mary-Louise Parker plays it well. It’s just hard not to imagine her off selling drugs every time she leaves the home (as per her character in Showtime’s “Weeds”). Another instance is when the kids summon a griffin to take them to an enchanted place where they can get answers from Spiderwick himself. The entire sequence feels as if it were lifted directly out of a Harry Potter picture, taking away from the mystical joy that riding an enchanted creature through the skies should have.

Still, for what it is, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” never ceases to entertain, and that’s the point. Kids are going to love watching Jared and Mallory battle it out with goblins and let their imaginations run wild, and parents are going to love that it clocks in at barely an hour-and-a-half.

So, in this case everybody wins — even greedy, kid-movie-hungry producers.

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