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'The Spiderwick Chronicles'

In this first installment of what will doubtless become a kids' fantasy franchise, a divorced mom (Mary-Louise Parker) moves with her three kids into the family's abandoned country manse, only to discover that it's sprite-infested. Great-great-uncle Arthur (David Strathairn) had been writing a faerie-world guidebook, y'see — Arthur Spiderwick's Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You — when he disappeared some six decades earlier, and a neighboring colony of faerie-loathing ogres would love to get their gooey hands on the secrets in it.

Happily, Arthur's now-elderly daughter Lucinda (Joan Plowright) left a pantry well-stocked with honey, tomato sauce and oatmeal before being carted off to the loony bin at the age of 9. And once the kids discover what each of those foodstuffs is good for — placating certain creatures, dissolving others — they prove resourceful in the art of goblin-repelling.

Sarah Bolger (as teenaged Mallory) and Freddie Highmore (doubling as both of her brothers, defiant Jared and gentle Simon) fight the digital baddies persuasively enough that you're not thinking about how they're probably surrounded by green screens. And though director Mark Waters allows the ending to get overwhelmed a bit by special effects, all he's really doing is hewing to genre requirements.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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