An evil ogre seeks an encyclopedia that contains the vast secrets of an enchanted realm in The Spiderwick Chronicles, a pursuit that would seem more consequential if Mark Waters’s film didn’t reveal said realm—which lies just beneath the surface of our everyday existence—to contain little more than a few strange creatures governed by spells involving tomato sauce, salt, and honey. Waters’s stab at a children’s fantasy epic is based on a series of books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, and while I can’t speak to the quality of the novels, what appears on screen is little more than a competently executed, largely characterless hodgepodge of the past decade’s legion of likeminded adventures. In this saga, Mary-Louise Parker’s newly single mother relocates fencing fanatic Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and her twin brothers Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore) from New York City to a country family mansion, where Jared—angry at Mom about the move and her separation from his father—discovers an ancient book written by his great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Straitharn). Being a disobedient kid, Jared ignores the do-not-open warning note, thereby letting loose an army of toady goblins and their ogre master Mulgarath, who wants to use the book’s contents to destroy the world.
Fatherless children are the order of the day, but Spiderwick Chronicles develops this theme no more than the absolute minimum, instead content to stage swordfights and races-against-time between its plucky child protagonists and their monstrous enemies. Like so many would-be successors to the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter thrones, Waters’s film is thin at every turn, offering up magical sights and sounds without spending the requisite amount of time establishing a fantastical world that might deliver some actual magic. Consequently, the mythology it tenders feels like so much substance-free gobbledygook, a shortcoming almost as egregious as the misuse of not only Straitharn (far too reserved for the inventive, obsessive Spiderwick) but also Nick Nolte, who—aside from one scene—is reduced to doing voice work for a CG ogre far less menacing than the intense, grizzled actor himself.