This is a smart film adaptation of the illustrated serial novel by author Holly Black and artist Tony DiTerlizzi, which was as much concerned with reproducing the ‘field guide’ to goblins and fairies that serves as the mcguffin as telling its fairly straight-ahead kids-and-magical-creatures storyline. Mom (Mary-Louise Parker) moves to a small town after a painful split from Dad, and has a struggle maintaining a connection with the variously troublesome kids. Set-ups like this recur in contemporary kid’s stories, and this is as absent-father-centered as a wearisome number of recent American films — though the divorce mostly provides a modern spin on the plot devices which semi-orphan young protagonists in the likes of The Railway Children or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so they can be left to their own devices to have adventures. The kids are twin boys, resentful Jared and passive Simon (Freddie Highmore), and their slightly older sister, aggressive fencer Mallory (Sarah Bolger) – but the lead is Jared, who still hopes his father (Andrew McCarthy) will rescue him from the ‘Addams Family’ house Mom has stuck him with (Dad hasn’t yet had the guts to tell him he’s moved in with another woman) and grates on both his siblings in different ways. Jared comes across the eponymous book, compiled by the long-missing Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), which contains many secrets about the various supernatural denizens that lurk mostly unseen about the property, but can’t cross a magic toadstool line of protection about the house.
Jared meets the book’s lax guardian, Thimbletack (voiced irritatingly by Martin Short), and bird-eating hobgoblin Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), who are the more benevolent boggarts, but also the ogre Mulgarath (Nick Nolte in human form), who commands a horde of squat, toothy goblins which seem like puffed-up crossbreeds of Critter and Gremlin. Of course, Jared eventually ropes in his siblings in a battle with Mulgarath, who is after the book for secrets which will enable him to attain power, and a visit to the dotty old great aunt (Joan Plowright) who lived in the house until she was instititutionalised sets up yet another absent father bit as it turns out she’s the daughter left behind eighty years ago when some fairies removed Spiderwick from the earthly plane to keep their secrets safe.
John Sayles had a hand in crafting this script, which is concise and effective if just a touch on-the-nose even for a kids’ film, and director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Mean Girls) cannily lets the good performances of the live-action cast (NB: note how many are non-American) carry a lot of the weight. The comical magic creatures come over less well than the malign ones, though these goblins are mostly safely dumb – a few turns into nightmare, and this could have been as nasty as Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and there’s one genuinely scary moment as Dad finally shows up to grant Jared’s dearest wish but is actually revealed to be the ogre in disguise.