"The Spiderwick Chronicles" may not be in the same fantasy league as the tales of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling.
Yet the family flick based on the books of Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black is an all-around class act, even if its world of ogres and goblins is a bit stale in the wake of its more ambitious cousins in the over-the-rainbow genre.
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.
Jared has serious anger issues over his parents' split, Simon's sweet and bookish and Mallory tries to keep the boys in line to help out her struggling mom.
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. 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.
Director Mark Waters, graduating to a big action production after making the comedy hits "Mean Girls" and "Freaky Friday," crafts a surprisingly brisk adventure. The movie is at its best in the human moments, and the 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. Nick Nolte is creepier than any fantasy that could be dreamed up.
* "The Spiderwick Chronicles," rated PG for violence. Running time: 96 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.