The Spiderwick Chronicles
I'll confess to a little unease before the screening of "The Spiderwick Chronicles," thinking this would be too cute for words, with its computer-generated creatures of the forest, its haunted house set in the middle of nowhere, and its family of twin boys, Simon and Jared (both played by Freddie Highmore) and their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and their mother (Mary-Louise Parker) as a newly-separated woman and her children who inherit a haunted house. I thought the twins would be too cute, for example doing things like finishing each others' sentences; that the older sister would be mean, the mother - well, let me leave it there because "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is very much its own film, tightly constructed, using the tropes of the haunted house in an inventive way, and leading us into unexpected places.
Jared, the more adventurous of the boys, explores the house and comes upon a secret book that was written by his great-grandfather Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) about the goblins, elves and trolls that he has studied, and learned that they are vicious and must be kept out of the house. Their leader is Mulgarath (Nick Nolte). And sure enough, here they come; they want the book and they'll stop at nothing, including killing the children, to get it. With the help of a house-elf (voiced by Martin Short) and a pig who eats all manner of birds (voiced by Seth Rogan) the children learn slowly how to fend off the evil ones; what will keep them away, what will kill them. The film has a nice balance of wit and fear.
There's even a family trauma; Jared blames his mother for the separation and lives in hope that his father will return. Director Mark Waters keeps all of these things well under control, never letting the CGI creatures crowd out the real-life dynamics. Somehow the children must find their great-aunt, Arthur's daughter Lucinda (Joan Plowright), who now lives in a nursing home, in order to find the way to Arthur and his secrets. There are so few children's movies that have the ability to let us suspend our disbelief and enjoy both the wit and the frightening moments, that "The Spiderwick Chronicles," from a children's series of books I've never read, could become a classic for ages perhaps seven or eight and above. Normally I don't pay attention to the MPAA ratings, but a word of warning: this film, which carries a PG rating, might well be PG-13; in other words, very little children will likely be frightened; older kids should love it.