The Spiderwick Chronicles a Fearsomely Funny PG Netherworld

Freudians disheartened by the Bearded One's fall from psychotherapeutic grace may be cheered to learn that ol' Sigmund lives and prospers at the movies, at least in child-friendly cinema. The Spiderwick Chronicles, an extravagantly Oedipal fantasy adventure based on the popular children's novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, comes stuffed with defaulting dads ripe for slaying; a freshly single mom (Mary-Louise Parker); and one majorly split personality, also known as her twin sons. There's a carelessly tacked-on big sister — a waste of the promising young actress Sarah Bolger — but it's the boys, an angry rebel and a bookish nerd both played with his customary laid-back intelligence by British child actor Freddie Highmore, who drive the rather thin story and its muscular id-ish subtext.

Jared and Simon Grace are steamed over their family's abrupt move, minus an absent father, from New York City to a ramshackle old rural New England house that once belonged to mother Helen's great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn). A naturalist who vanished without a trace years ago, Uncle Spiderwick left behind a young daughter — but it would ruin everything if I told you who plays the daughter. Suffice it to say that in one form or another, that lost little girl will become one of many truth-tellers designed to set the boys free.

Stewing in ignorance about why their world has been turned upside down, the boys have only their nameless fears for company, and you'd have to be pretty unschooled in fairy-tale protocol to be shocked when the ancestral walls starts vibrating and a gnarled wee creature named Thimbletack, voiced by Martin Short, pops out. This temperamental house goblin squeaks out a warning that reading the dusty old field guide they've found in the attic may open up worlds the boys would do best not to enter. Like all bibles and self-help manuals, the guide, written by great-great-uncle Arthur before he disappeared, offers a forked road map to good or evil — or both — depending on who get his hands on it.

Freddie Highmore plays twin brothers in this smart children's fantasy.
Freddie Highmore plays twin brothers in this smart children's fantasy.

Adventure may be dangerous in The Spiderwick Chronicles, but home these days isn't exactly a comfort zone. As in most nightmares, there's really no safe place to be, and for a movie beamed at young children, it's remarkably respectful of their ability to embrace ambivalence.

Credit director Mark Waters, whose Freaky Friday and Mean Girls showed off his respect for the dark side of youth. In Spiderwick, his comedy is visceral without resorting to five farts a minute, and Waters trusts in kids' courage to confront serious trouble and their instinctive ease at moving between the real and the surreal. The movie's richly autumnal look, shot by the great Caleb Deschanel with production design by E.T.'s James Bissell, is by swift turns cozily naturalistic and terrifyingly baroque, a murky underworld that entraps troubled dreamers like the twins and strips the wool from over their eyes.

But first there is a shape-shifting demon to be slain (Mr. Id himself, Nick Nolte in stringy white hair), a monster who, Freudians may note with delight, morphs into the boys' absent father — and, when that doesn't frighten them off, a phallic serpent. For much of the movie Waters sustains the delicate balance between scary fantasy and human story. But CGI is a seductive mistress and toward the end Spiderwick bogs down in a crescendo of effects and action, before fizzling into tearful reconciliation on all fronts.

It turns out we are not yet done with deadbeat dads, and if I, too, may flog a psychoanalytic dead horse: What self-respecting pubescent boy, confronted with a father figure rising into the heavens in a halo of remorse and dandelion fluff, wouldn't run home to Mama?

 
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