(CNN) -- A dozen producers share the bragging rights for bringing the popular Holly Black-Tony DiTerlizzi "Spiderwick" children's fantasy books to the screen. That wouldn't necessarily be grounds for optimism, so it's a relief to report that "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is free of the elephantine designs that bogged down "The Golden Compass."
Freddie Highmore finds himself face-to-face with Nick Nolte, who plays an ogre.
Unlike "Compass," New Line's luxurious, sporadically entertaining misadventure, Mark Waters' crisp little movie is modestly scaled and keeps the story front and center. Heck, it even comes supplied with something called an ending: The narrative is tied up, characters work through their problems, tears are shed, all that stuff. The makers of "Compass" might want to check it out.
Like "Golden Compass," "Spiderwick" is imprinted with the influence of C.S. Lewis' Narnia books. The Grace children -- angry, troubled Jared; his sweeter twin brother, Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore); and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) -- move into a ramshackle country house with their newly divorced mom (Mary-Louise Parker). The estate once belonged to their great-great-uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), a naturalist whose field research revealed some unexpected new species: fairies, goblins and the like.
Uncle Arthur has long since vanished -- and his daughter Lucinda is now an old lady in the local asylum -- but Jared's discovery of his loosely bound notes reawakens the interest of the terrible ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte), who will stop at nothing to get his claws on them, if only he and his toadies can break the protective circle that surrounds the house.
Mulgarath isn't the only monster in this movie. Jared does a good impersonation of one in the early scenes, railing against his mom and taking a switch to the SUV. His home is broken, and he's all upset about it. When his sister wakes up to find her hair tied to the bedstead, everyone assumes Jared is the culprit.
In fact, it's Thimbletack, a "house brownie" whose job is to protect Spiderwick's book. A midget-sized hulk voiced by Martin Short, Thimbletack can work himself into a green fury unless you sweeten his disposition with generous helpings of honey.
Jared also gets some help from Hogsqueal, a bird-eating hobgoblin (voiced by Seth Rogen) who has sworn vengeance on Mulgarath and who'll spit in your eye to expose the ogre's invisible minions.
Waters ("Mean Girls") hasn't done an effects movie before, unless you count "Freaky Friday," but he's kept a firm grip on the material and gets impressive performances out of Bolger and Highmore (though it's questionable whether it was worth twinning him; Simon -- "I don't do conflict" -- is mostly on the sidelines).
The storytelling is economical and brisk. In some ways, Waters approaches it more as a pre-teen horror movie. The domestic squabbles within the ruptured family are realistic and raw, and the climax is like something out of a home-invasion thriller (but with more goo).
That said, these intense sequences are offset by moments of whimsy and humor, by Caleb Deschanel's beautiful cinematography, James Horner's warm score and the benign presence of old pros like Strathairn and Joan Plowright. Incidentally, Strathairn's regular collaborator, indie filmmaker John Sayles, is one of three credited screenwriters.
Parents of younger children should proceed with caution; this walk in the woods is no picnic. But "The Spiderwick Chronicles" is animated by its anger issues; edgy and brittle, it's at least a cut above average. E-mail to a friend
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