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The Spiderwick Chronicles

Directed by Mark Waters
Certificate PG, 107 mins

The Spiderwick Chronicles

A century ago, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) documented fairies, brownies and other normally unseen creatures in his Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. But his book gave Mulgarath the Ogre (Nick Nolte) and his army of goblins information that would threaten the more benevolent creatures. Arthur sealed the book within his isolated New England house, set a friendly creature to guard it, then vanished mysteriously. In the present day, his descendants, the teen siblings Jared, Simon (both Freddie Highmore) and Mallory (Sarah Bolger) move from New York into the dilapidated house with their mum (Mary-Louise Parker). Jared finds and opens the book, drawing the ogre's unwelcome attention...

With an absence of religious imagery that would have earned Tolkien's approval, this adaptation of Tony DiTerlizzi's and Holly Black's series of children's books is a splendid romp with more beneath the surface than you might expect. This is in part thanks to the screenwriters, including the producer Karey Kirkpatrick (James And The Giant Peach, Chicken Run) and John Sayles (who directed Honeydripper, opening next month).

Kirkpatrick claims a fascination with the unseen world around us, while Sayles, one suspects, had a hand in the dark undercurrents erupting into rows between various family members, giving a more credible, intelligent feel than your average children's movie.

Fantastical creatures abound (by Cloverfield's effects maestro Phil Tippett) - among them a friendly foot-high brownie who turns into a fearsome boggart when roused to anger and must be appeased with honey; fairies camouflaged as flower heads and an army of unpleasant, loutish goblins. These can be seen by looking through a doughnut shaped stone ring, or by the friendly hobgoblin Hogsqueal's, biblical-sounding spittle in your eyes.
Its thoroughly entertaining throughout, a terrific looking film with great performances and effects to die for, Waters clearly being the perfect director for the job. It also boasts two characteristically impressive performances by Highmore as the two very different brothers, placing the film in a venerable line stretching from Disney's The Parent Trap to Cronenberg's Dead Ringers in which special effects let one actor to play two characters simultaneously.

More importantly, this at once explores the subtleties of family dynamics and the magic of an undreamed of natural order. Emotions are highly charged; strangely, that's the element that appears to benefit most in the huge IMAX version, which is the one to see if you can afford it. No Golden Compass-style watering down for demographics reasons - the film is not afraid of dark villains, rendering its protagonists' struggle against them all the more real. Nor, unlike The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, does it cynically ape The Lord Of The Rings films' visuals - this is very much its own film. A real treat.

Jeremy Clarke