For a children's movie adapted from a minor series of books and released in the dumping ground of mid-February as Valentine's Day counter-programming, The Spiderwick Chronicles has some heavy hitters on its creative team: shot by Caleb Deschanel, edited by Spielberg's longtime collaborator Michael Kahn, starring such actors as Mary-Louise Parker and David Strathairn, co-written by John Sayles. Admittedly, all of these people are doubtlessly here cashing a check (hidden no doubt under the justification that "I'm making a movie my kids can see"), but it's nevertheless the case that the film is substantially better than it seems like it should be, do in no small part to the work done by those very same craftspeople.

In particular, Deschanel deserves far more credit than he will ever receive, along with the visual effects artists of Industrial Light and Magic (I might add, it feel like it's been quite a while since ILM has worked on a film, doesn't it? It's been so long since they were the only game in town, I'd almost forgotten what it was like when they were the go-to people for good effects work). I put these together because they are so tightly interlinked - the CGI effects are successful not because they are, in and of themselves, extremely fluid and beautifully modeled (to be fair, there is a distinctly rubbery quality to much of the animation), but because of how well the effects mesh with the overall look of the film. I particularly mean that the whole film has a painted look to it, achieved primarily through the use of very soft light and autumnal colors. The CGI creatures populating this world - looking significantly better than they did in the trailer, I don't mind saying - have a similar color scheme and a similar "drawn" quality; they have the texture of colored pencil sketches rendered in three dimensions.

"Textured", that's a good word to stick with. The film looks tactile, not because of the surfaces exactly, but because of the richness of the colors and shadows. I would almost be tempted to say that this surface-ness is a hallmark of Deschanel's (has any film in the modern age looked as physical as The Passion of the Christ?), but it would make me sound a little bit insane.

But the point remains: the effects and the cinematography both work on much the same level, and they work together, which is unfortunately not something you can take for granted, even these many years after CGI has become de rigueur in American filmmaking. The visual effects are not the finest I've ever seen, but they are integrated into the visual scheme of the film very successfully, perhaps better than any computer effects ever have been. I indulge in hyperbole only because of how very deeply I was impressed by the fact that even as I was sometimes bothered by character movement or design, I never doubted how well they fit into the film's world.

The look of the film suggests the illustrations in a book, which makes a great deal of sense: this is, after all, an adaptation of a series of fantasy novels for young readers. Moreover, the film's story is very exposition-heavy, and seems particularly designed to introduce the viewer to the fantasy world, through the means of a field guide, a book full of carefully hand-drawn images of the fantastic creatures. And thus it all comes together.

For all that the film is a really marvelous-looking thing, I'd be a liar if I didn't admit that it was a bit uneven as a story. To a certain degree, I would rather celebrate this than complain: the MacGuffin in the film is a book about looking at interesting things, not after all a book about a story. But the fact remains that The Spiderwick Chronicles does indeed have a plot, and in a lot of ways it's not a very pleasing one. Not trash, mind; just pretty indifferent.

Our hero is Jared Grace (Freddie Highmore), a sullen prepubescent whose parents have recently split up, leaving him stuck with his mother Helen (Mary-Louise Parker), who has taken all of her children to the old Spiderwick house in New England that was left to her by her crazy aunt, now in an asylum. Jared hates being there, a fact which he does not hide from anyone, angering his sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), who is trying her damnedest to keep from adding to their mother's stresses, and worrying his twin brother Simon (Highmore as well), who really just can't stand conflict of any kind.

Succor for Jared comes in the form of a field guide composed by his great-granduncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), full of descriptions of magical creatures who exist in the world, hidden from mortal sight, and the key to seeing these creatures. Some are kind, like the brownie Thimbletack (voice by a nearly-unrecognisable Martin Short) who lives in the house, or the hobgoblin Hogsqueal (voiced by a distractingly recognisable Seth Rogen) who lives on the grounds and eats birds. Some, however, are quite vicious, and most of these are under the control of the ogre Mulgarath (voiced by Nick Nolte, of all unexpected people). Cue the lovely effects imagery and the expected plot twists involving a young boy becoming a fantasy hero (although The Spiderwick Chronicles has the decency to put up a pretty fine role for its young female co-star).

That's boilerplate fantasy, of course, and sometimes boilerplate fantasy can still be extremely delightful. Here it isn't really, for here there is too much explaining and not enough doing. When the dust has settled and we can actually look back over the narrative, there isn't really all that much of it. It doesn't help matters much that director Mark Waters shoots the film's action scenes with confusing frenzy, disguising most of what's going on in a whirlwind of cuts and swooping camera movements. It's not enough, apparently, that very little forward momentum happens in the film; much of what does happens is gotten through as quickly as possible.

Still, the film isn't too much of a drag. The marvelous visuals, I have already touched on; then there is also the matter of the characters. Not the most well-rounded children's movie characters ever written, perhaps, but they are well acted, mostly, and here that is enough. Highmore manages his dual role fairly successfully, although nothing can make it less creepy when he is staring at himself. His Jared is significantly more interesting than his Simon (a neurotic milquetoast of the most clichéd variety), giving us a rare treat indeed: an actor in a dual role playing one part very well and the other part somewhat poorly. I honestly can't think of another time that has happened. In a much less showy single-character role, Bolger reminds us of how incredibly fresh and charming she was in In America. The bad performances, weirdly, are exactly the two you wouldn't expect: Parker and Strathairn, the former of whom is totally unable to look at CGI animals that aren't there, the latter of whom simply gives up in the face of his Very Somber Dialogue.

The Spiderwick Chronicles is no kind of timeless classic, owing mainly to its thin script, but I liked it anyway. Admittedly, most of what I liked was resolutely technical, but I think I do not have to apologise for that: good craft is good craft, and if the people who made this film cared enough about it to give their all, I will respond to that in kind. It's not a masterpiece, but I was never bored. For a children's movie, that's practically a rave.