Moving into a big, ancient house inhabited not-so-long-ago by an aunt now confined to a mental hospital, the Grace siblings—studious, shy Simon, his easily irritated twin Jared (both played by Freddie Highmore), and their older sister Mallory (In America's Sarah Bolger)—have low expectations. The aunt's madness, after all, easily explains a house filled with tomato sauce and oatmeal, and small-town life seems short on thrills. But soon Jared stumbles on a book with explicit instructions that it must not be read. What more could a kid want?
Kids attending this adaptation of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's illustrated-novel series might wind up asking the same question. Fast-paced and filled with neat special effects, it's a sure kid-pleaser, albeit one that suffers from the very elements that make it go down so easily. Director Mark Waters and a team of screenwriters that includes John Sayles have done an efficient job of boiling the Spiderwick books down to the length of a single feature, but they might have cooked it a bit too long. The family, led by Mary-Louise Parker, is still reeling from the recent desertion of Parker's husband, but the film keeps this drama in the margins alongside such frills as character development and an explanation as to what the big conflict is all about. Sure, there's a horrifying goblin army that only the kids can stop from taking over the world, but what's their motivation?
On the other hand: goblins! Anyone looking for handsomely presented, kid-friendly thrills need look no further. The more the kids explore that forbidden book—compiled, it turns out, by a long-disappeared relative played by David Strathairn—the further they run afoul of some unfriendly beasts intent on killing them. Throwing in some helpful, fanciful allies (voiced by Seth Rogen and Martin Short), Waters keeps the perils coming and the action tense. It plays a lot like a fun-for-the-whole-family version of an Evil Dead movie, heavy on sticky fluids and evil beasties, but short on severed limbs and rape-happy trees. If only the film had thrown in a reason to care, it might have been something to remember.