The Spiderwick Chronicles
There are two extraordinary performances nestled inside The Spiderwick Chronicles, and singling them out is like realizing Elizabeth Taylor's eyes are really purple--there's plenty else surrounding them to praise, but once you determine their uniqueness it's hard to notice anything else. Consider Jared (Freddie Highmore), the impulsive and hotheaded twin of the Grace family. He moves with the confident amble of a popular kid, but when scared he loses his facade and screams like a howler monkey. He's so different from his bookish and timid brother Simon, who lacks Jared's middle school savoir faire and instead lurches around the house awkwardly, leading with his shoulders like Anthony Perkins stomping around the Bates Motel.
But Jared and Simon are identical twins, and they're both played by Highmore. Hair and wardrobe have made certain we can differentiate the boys, but it's not necessary. Highmore, one of the most sensitive young actors working today, has already done the acting homework needed to create two different characters, rendering Jared and Simon even more distinct than Jeremy Irons did playing identical twins in David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. Like in that movie, seamless split screens successfully integrate multiple takes of the same actor into a smooth illusion of multiplicity, but all the special effects in the world wouldn't help if the actor didn't believe in the illusion, too. But Highmore does, and after a few minutes, the gimmick disappears and what's left is the two characters--which is exactly as it should be.
That gimmickless certainty extends to the rest of the movie, a small-scale fantasy that's to Ricky Jay's tabletop magic as The Chronicles of Narnia is to a David Copperfield show. After moving upstate to their great aunt's abandoned homestead, Jared, Simon, and their older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) discover an ancestor's field guide to the wee beasties of this world, from fairies and sylphs to vengeful ogres. It's the ogres who want the book, but the Grace children are willing to put up a fight, aided by their now-ancient great-aunt (Joan Plowright) and the illustrious book's author, Dr. Spiderwick himself (David Strathairn).
The movie's performances, special effects, and genuine enchantment add up to a blue-chip experience, but something rings curiously flat after the lights go up. Maybe it's how the threats to heaven and earth are tied up in a bundle so airtight there's no room for a continuation of the story to squeak through. Maybe the filmmakers are pacing themselves for the inevitable sequels, but the sudden vacuum at the end harks back to the eager plea of kids successfully entertained by a good but somehow lacking bedtime story: "And then what happened?"