A Whole New World
Highmore delivers a flawless performance in "Spiderwick Chronicles"

The Spiderwick Chronicles (PG)

4 stars out of 4

If you don't consider animated movies, you can count the number of truly classic family films on one hand. They would be "The Wizard of Oz," "E.T.," "The Sound of Music" and maybe the first "Home Alone." You can now add "The Spiderwick Chronicles" to that list.

Based on a series of relatively little-known books by Holly Black and Tony DeTerlizzi, the "Spiderwick" movie is a perfect mesh of old-fashioned and modern storytelling techniques. It is utterly flawless in its execution, and every single frame adds to its rich texture and wide-reaching aspirations.

A committee of three writers, including John Sayles, condensed five books into an ultra-efficient, watertight screenplay that might leave some dedicated followers of the series a little peeved. There are no elves, no dwarfs and no romantic subplots included here. Every movie adaptation of a literary source has to eliminate something, but if you've never read these books, you won't mind a bit.

In what initially feels like a gimmick, teen phenomenon Freddie Highmore is cast as twins Simon and Jared. Simon is the passive, logical, nonconfrontational one, and Jared is the mischievous, freewheeling, emotional one. Watching Highmore act opposite himself - in a flawless American accent - with such ease and conviction offers further evidence that he is the most talented juvenile actor in the business.

It takes a while, but Jared finally convinces his sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) and soon-to-be divorced mother Helen (Mary Louise Parker) that there are evil woodland creatures out to get them. It all started when Jared unwisely opened a mysterious book written by his distant uncle Arthur (Sayles' regular David Strathairn) that explores the unseen world of faeries, ogres, griffins and other assorted fantastical creatures.

Director Mark Waters' special effects crew has upped the ante on the art form with their work here. The seamless melding of live-action and CGI characters is astonishing. The artists know when too much is enough and only once get close to audio/visual overkill.

Apart from the technical accomplishments, the filmmakers deliver a story that has every necessary ingredient for success. There's a fractured family rife with tension, characters with wide arcs, a menacing evil foil (Nick Nolte as Mulgarath), pitch-perfect comic relief and an emotionally uplifting ending which doesn't feel at all contrived and will melt the heart of even the most jaded cynic.

Needless to say, this marks a career high for Waters, whose previous output has been mostly uneven. For every winner he turns out ("The House of Yes," "Mean Girls"), he drops a bomb ("Head Over Heels," "Just Like Heaven"). One might have thought such a sprawling project like "Spiderwick" would have overwhelmed him, but his level of assurance here is off the charts and puts him in the same class as Steven Spielberg disciples Robert Zemekis and Chris Columbus.

Hopefully, the Oscar nominating committee will be able to remember this endearing classic come February 2009. (Paramount/Nickelodeon)