What's the true test for a good fantasy? Is it how realistic it is?
And when you're dealing with honey-swilling brownies, an evil ogre who chooses the visage of Nick Nolte to appear friendly, a bird devouring hobgoblin and a leatherbound field guide that's no mild-mannered Sibley's, making fantasy believable is quite a challenge.
It's a challenge magically met by director Mark Waters in "The Spiderwick Chronicles." Waters ("Mean Girls," "Freaky Friday") wastes little time sucking you into Spiderwick, which is based on the kids books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.
Mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) packs up the kids and leaves her philandering hubby in New York for an abandoned family estate in the country. Older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) arrives bummed out but aware that her mom is even more so, and that she'll need to take her role as responsible older sister to the next level. Simon arrives pensive and introspective ("It has that old people smell," he says upon entering the house. "That's just an observation. Not a judgment.") while Simon's twin, Jared, pulls up to the Addams Family-like mansion i-plugged in and iTuned out. He's mad at his mom (though he'll later learn that it's dad who should earn his scorn) and the picture of angry adolescent indifference. This is a family ripe for Dr. Phil.
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It's not long, though, before the family dynamic is altered, thanks to some unusual goings-on. First, what's up with all the tomato sauce, oatmeal, honey and salt in the cupboards? And that thumping in the wall, a noise that jolts Jared from his truculent trance. He taps the wall with a broomstick; the wall taps back.
"What's that in the wall?" asks a timid Simon. "A squirrel?"
"Squirrels don't tap back," answers Jared.
Further tapping causes a section of wall to cave in, revealing a dumbwaiter that Jared takes to a hidden second-floor room, the lab of great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick. It was here that Spiderwick recorded his observations about the nearby countryside brimming with goblins, faeries, sprites and the like in a tome called "Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You."
It's also here that the weirdness is given a face -- in the form of a foot-tall rat who looks a bit like ... Martin Short?
Actually, it's a brownie, a brownie who turns into an angry boggart when he gets upset. A situation rectified by the honey, lots and lots of it.
Things could easily become contrived at this point. But the fantasy that unfolds is quite believable and quite easy to follow. The plot is straightforward: The field guide is a blueprint for man's demise should it fall into the wrong gobliny hands. The script, by Karey Kirkpatrick, who wrote the witty "Chicken Run," is tight and funny for the right reasons. And the cast convincingly turns the out-of-sorts Grace family into a unified force. Freddie Highmore ("Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") earns double credit for playing both the angry Jared and timid Simon. The computer animation that brings the fantasy critters to life garners the special effects spotlight, but anyone who remembers when Patty Duke did double duty as cousins Patty and Cathy will appreciate the seamlessness of Jared and Simon in the same scenes.
Helping the cause, too, is that Spiderwick is set in familiar territory (the U.S.) and the fantasy creatures -- hobgoblins, ogres, griffins -- are ones we grew up with. Wonderful as Harry Potter is, the contrived nomenclature created a cliquishness that only the devout -- the "cool kids" -- could truly appreciate, thus limiting its universal appeal.
Spiderwick gives us a familiar situation (a dysfunctional family) in a familiar setting (the Northeast). By the time the gremlins show up, the setting is ripe for make believe that makes us believe.