I guess movies based on children's fantasy books are money spinners that are just too hard to be passed up. But for each Harry Potter and Bridge to Terabithia, there's Eragon and The Golden Compass. The latter two have ready literary installments, but their dismal box office result means they are unlikely to be made anytime soon. Which is probably why The Spiderwick Chronicles decided to combine multiple books into a palatable 100 minute movie that just gets to the point without unnecessary meandering.
Based on the books by Holly Black and Tony Diterlizzi, the story centers on three children, twins Jared and Simon Grace (a double dose of Freddie Highmore), and older sister Mallory Grace (Sarah Bolger), who chance upon a whole new world as introduced in a secret book written by Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathaim), albeit with a warning not to read it, lest they attract the attention of an evil ogre and its minions. Of course, being children, and the rebel amongst them - Jared, learns all that he can about the world of faeries and various miscellaneous thingamajigs that we don't get introduced to much at all. So it's a battle between the good children and the evil monsters as the latter try their best to steal Arthur's field guide, in order for world domination (as always)!
On the whole, as a children's movie, it works to entertain the kids. There were rounds of applause each time the children go one up against the enemies, who aren't really that bright and are easily defeated by tomato sauce (yup, it's a children's movie alright). Some scenes reminded me of Home Alone though, where normal household items become weapon of choice against the enemies. There are the usual pathos built in with the usual parental-children break down in relationships, such as that between Jared and mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker), and the waiting for promises fulfilled between Lucinda (Joan Plowright) and dad Arthur Spiderwick. I'd bet if the filmmakers can insert reminders to listen to your parents, they would.
The special effects don't really set to wow, and the creature designs also don't set out to astonish. They come across as fairly routine effort in crafting realism, but somehow lacked a distinct soul. Perhaps it's the lack of focus given to individual creatures that they don't come across as unique, or very lazily and hastily slapped together since they're usually moved around in groups. Action set pieces are somewhat below par, and involves lots of running, little physical contact between combatants, and not much tension building where you would root for or cheer for the heroes. Then again, this is an adult watching the movie, not a child, who would have a different opinion.
Fans of Freddie Highmore would be delighted that he does get to stretch his acting chops a bit, although it's just acting through 2 characters on different ends of the spectrum. Filled with various supporting voices like Martin Short as Thimbletack the brownie, Seth Rogen as Hogsqueal hobgoblin and Nick Nolte as evil shape-shifting ogre Mulgarath, it's pretty much a standard action adventure suitable for the entire family with little violence and no gore, though to adults, it might be a little bore.