The human characters are the main source of wonder here. Freddie Highmore, Sarah Bolger and Mary-Louise Parker authentically capture the fractured spirit of a family newly cast into single-parent mode, while David Strathairn adds a wistful streak as a naturalist so absent-minded he fails to notice how his devotion to a magical realm has cut him off from the marvels of everyday life.
Far more modest than films based on Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" and Rowling's "Harry Potter" books, "Spiderwick Chronicles" actually becomes more pedestrian the further it wanders from reality.
Hollywood has become so adept at conjuring up computer-generated imps and elves and other beasties that the unremarkable creatures here seem commonplace, and occasionally annoying, by comparison.
The story is simple: newly divorced Helen Grace (Parker), twin sons Jared and Simon (both played by Highmore) and their older sister, Mallory (Bolger), move to the fanciful New England home given to Helen by her great-aunt.
Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright) is now in a rest home, having spent her life in fear of the evil creatures that live in the surrounding woods. Lucinda's dad, Arthur Spiderwick (Strathairn), documented the unseen world of fairies, sprites and monsters in a book before vanishing 80 years earlier.
Shape-shifting ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte) covets the book, whose secrets would allow him to take over the world. He sends his gang of goblins against the family after Jared finds the book, setting up some modest action sequences as the Graces duke it out with Mulgarath's minions.
Martin Short provides the voice of a tiny being known as a brownie who has been protecting the book for decades, while Seth Rogen adds vocals for an eager but cowardly hobgoblin seeking revenge against Mulgarath.
Director Mark Waters, graduating to a big action production after making the comedy hits "Mean Girls" and "Freaky Friday," crafts a surprisingly brisk adventure given the ponderous running times of recent fantasy films.
With a top-notch screenplay credited to Karey Kirkpatrick ("Chicken Run"), David Berenbaum ("Elf") and indie-film icon John Sayles, the movie is at its best in the human moments.
Though she's fighting otherworldly thugs, Parker's more grounded in real-world domestic matters here than she is on television as the quirky pot-dealing mom in "Weeds." Bolger, memorable as the older sister in 2002's "In America," has blossomed into a lovely, fierce and funny young actress.
Highmore, Johnny Depp's co-star in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Finding Neverland," anchors the movie with two fine performances, injecting Jared and Simon with distinct personalities and idiosyncrasies.
Strathairn does quiet melancholy better than just about anyone out there, dominating his own brief scenes as the man whose life's work has opened Pandora's Box.
Director Waters' production crew has done a marvelous job on the Spiderwick house, a creaky old place with plenty of strange nooks and crannies and a general Addams family ambience.
The creatures are far less imaginative, mostly squat, clumsy, jabbering little guys that look like delinquent Muppets. They're not terribly interesting or frightening. Neither are the various incarnations of Mulgarath, who appears as a black bird, a serpent, a scaly giant and most memorably, as Nolte in the flesh.
Grizzled, hoary, stooped and muttering menacingly, Nolte himself is far creepier and scarier than anything effects people could ever dream up.
"The Spiderwick Chronicles," a Paramount release, is rated PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements. Running time: 96 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
By David Germain