What greater fantasy is there for a kid than to be special? Possessing the secret key, the magic words, the enchanted shoes—it’s the basis of all the best children’s stories, and the rock-solid premise of The Spiderwick Chronicles too. Though it never quite achieves greatness, it comes pretty close; it’s a fast-paced and breathtaking adventure thriller, old-fashioned and big-hearted in all the best ways.

Freddie Highmore does double duty—and an American accent!—as twin brothers Jared and Simon, who have recently moved with their mom (Mary-Louise Parker) and older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger) to their great-uncle Spiderwick’s spooky estate. It’s a classic haunted house—ivy crawling up the chimney, weird noises coming from inside the walls, and a cobwebbed room in the attic filled with creepy-crawlies. Jared is the only one who investigates, and he discovers a book in the attic called The Spiderwick Chronicles.

It turns out that Uncle Spiderwick (David Strathairn), as seen in flashbacks, was the first person to write a field guide to the magical realm, just before he mysteriously disappeared. Eighty years later, the goblins who live in the forest outside the estate are still after the book, since it contains all the secrets necessary for their leader, Mulgarath, to take over the world. When Jared unseals the book and brings it too close to the forest, he re-awakens the goblins and has his eyes opened to the entire magical realm, both in and outside his house.
Fortunately the creature on the inside is friendly, though he’s prone to ugly transformations when he’s upset. Voiced by Martin Short, Thimbletack explains that Spiderwick constructed a circle of protection around the house, which keeps the goblins at bay until Mulgarath gets his hands on a few key pages of the book. With the help of Spiderwick’s daughter Lucinda (Joan Plowright), confined to a mental institution after she spoke out about what she saw in the magical realm, Jared and his siblings track down Spiderwick and enlist his help in fighting back the goblins and protecting the book for all time.

Despite the action-packed plot, the movie gives time to the emotional story as well, watching Jared cope with his parents’ impending divorce as he sees Aunt Lucinda reckon with her own father’s abandonment 80 years earlier. The two stories dovetail nicely in the end, as Jared’s adventures with the goblins and his mixed feelings toward his father come together in an explosive, and highly disturbing, image that shouldn’t be spoiled here.

Much of The Spiderwick Chronicles is scarier than what we’re used to seeing in children’s movies, even at the very beginning. Several parts of Jared’s investigation of the house could have come straight out of Poltergeist, and there’s never a moment in the film absent of some kind of dread or fear. It’s great to see an adventure movie that isn’t afraid to be frightening, but younger children may not be able to handle the tension and sudden shocks.

Casting Highmore in the dual roles is an unnecessary distraction—Jared is a far bigger part than Simon, and their purpose as identical twins in the plot is minimal. And I’m still waiting for Mary-Louise Parker to take a movie role worthy of her talents, since she’s largely ignored in the token mom role here. But the cast by and large is ready and able, particularly Seth Rogen, who provides the voice of helpful hobgoblin Hogsqueal, and teenage Bolger. The movie takes a little time getting off the ground, but once the adventures begin, it’s a simple delight to immerse yourself in the flights of fancy and battles of good and evil.