As far as fantasy books and movies go, the ones where there's some kind of secret world hidden inside our own are really much weirder than the ones full of elves and dwarves or where everyone's a talking toaster or whatever.
Like, there's a lot of wilderness left in the world, but when a town starts encroaching on fairyland, do the gnomes and sprites just load up their toadstool homes on the backs of their pack-mice and head off for a deeper part of the woods? Are we stepping on them all the time without noticing? Do they get upset about that?
The evil ones must devote their existence to killing and/or enslaving all the others. Guys like that can't take well to all our land-grabbing. No doubt the orcs and imps and such are declaring war on humanity all the time, and we just don't notice. They're probably so grumpy in the first place because for all their big bad plans they can't do anything worse to us than steal our car keys or make us wake up with a rash.
Hell, the "evil" goblins in movies like The Spiderwick Chronicles are probably freedom fighters, heroically sacrificing themselves to resist mankind's constant outward push to pave over their glens and warrens. We always win, so we get to write the history, to paint them as singleminded brutes and murderers. But nobody can be that evil. Some day, the truth will come to light, and it won't be pretty.
In The Spiderwick Chronicles it isn't long after a single mother and her three kids move into their great-great-uncle David Strathairn's spooky country house that young and angry Freddie Highmore starts hearing noises in the walls. His mom thinks he's just acting out, but his investigations reveal strange things: a cache of stolen trinkets hidden in the wall, and upstairs, in a dusty old lab, a book with a warning on it saying it mustn't be read.
Which of course means Highmore opens it immediately. Notes and lore gathered over the course of Straithairn's life, it claims that fairies, goblins, and other magical beings are real, hidden from our sight, and the book can show you how to see them.
But the book's got darker secrets, too -- secrets that, if they fell into the hands of the evil ogre Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte), could be used to destroy all the world's other creatures. Killing everything being the chief hobby of evil ogres everywhere, he'll do anything to get his hands on it. Aided by his bookish twin brother (also played by Highmore), tough older sister Sarah Bolger, a house-brownie, and a hobgoblin, Highmore has to find a way to keep the book safe from Mulgarath and his army of goblin henchmen.
Based on a young adult book series, The Spiderwick Chronicles is tilted more towards younger viewers, but its smart dialogue and sturdy pacing should work OK for adults, too. Occasionally I found the screeching and intended-to-be-comic carrying-on of some of the CG creatures exasperating -- Lord knows how they stayed hidden all these years when they're yelling loud enough to deafen a boulder -- but some of that's just me, and I have the feeling their performances might play well for kids without condescending to them.
It's a self-contained story, too, which is a rarity in these days of serialized fantasy movies. Kidsploitation's been going on since we made the switch from eggs to live young, but it's refreshing to see a movie with magic and junk where the ending is actually the ending and not a bridge leading to another $9 of your money in their pockets next year.
Though in the case of The Spiderwick Chronicles, the notion of a sequel wouldn't turn my heart to thoughts of Hollywood murder. Writers Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berebaum write kids well and their dialogue is distinctive without being distracting. Director Mark Waters puts together energetic action sequences, lively (if a bit cartoonish) CG, and, in a particularly impressive touch, drums up some tension even before the made-up imagination-creatures make their entrance.
For all that, I can't help but feel The Spiderwick Chronicles is a little light. We never see how Mulgarath and his goblin goon squad are going to commit pixie genocide. We just hear a lot about their plans to do so; without something concrete to really put the fear of bloodthirsty monsters into us, there are times when you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Too, its emotional conclusions strike the right notes, they just seem too easy. As a movie about small things, though, it succeeds in a lot of small ways.