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Living - February 22, 2008

Movie review: The Spiderwick Chronicles ***

Rating: PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements Run Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Some films are perfect for the pint-sized viewer. This fantasy-infused adventure is rich with eye-popping visual effects, colorful characters and tear-jerking family dynamics. But adults should be warned that the depth stops there - compared to other myth-and-magic flicks such as "The Lord of the Rings" or "Pan's Labyrinth," "Spiderwick" feels like "Sesame Street."

The story revolves around Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore of "Finding Neverland"), a troubled and troublesome young boy forced to move from New York when his parents split. Jared, his identical twin brother Simon (also Highmore), his sister Mallory (Irish actress Sarah Bolger) and his mother Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) settle in the secluded countryside mansion left to Helen by her great uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn).

The restless Jared is quickly scouring the house and discovers a path to Spiderwick's dust-filled office, where he finds a "field guide" littered with magical recipes and sketches of strange creatures. Turns out Spiderwick spent his life investigating bizarre phenomena in the environment around him, eventually uncovering a hidden world populated by elves, ogres and hobgoblins. Once Jared opens the guide, he finds himself immersed in the otherwise invisible world.

The computer graphics used to create the array of oddities in "Spiderwick" are extraordinary. Two characters specifically - Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), a sort of Tom Thumb meets Jekyll & Hyde, and Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen of "Knocked Up"), a chubby hobgoblin with a hunger for birds - are exquisitely animated and provide most of the film's comedic moments. The "villains" are less impressive: The ogres in "Spiderwick" resemble knee-high humanoid toads. Only their monstrous leader Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte) provides a threat that doesn't make one think of Kermit or French cuisine.

Highmore's performance is hit and miss, literally. He is excellent as Simon, the self-proclaimed pacifist of the family, but his portrayal of Jared feels less natural. In fact, after a few short minutes the viewer is wishing that Simon was the protagonist rather than Jared. And there is a glaring juvenile undertone to the entire film. The kids' "weapons" are primarily tomato juice and salt (although Mallory does wield a fencing sword) and despite the presence of fairies and a griffin, the tale rarely travels beyond the confines of the house and its immediate surrounding area. It's as if the story is enclosed in a bubble that only adolescents can enter and exit.

"Spiderwick" is "The Neverending Story" of the new millennium - a family-friendly fable that kids will applaud but adults may nap through.

--Tyler Hanley

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