Once upon a time, orphans were the preferred protagonists in tales of fantasy and adventure, whether they were named Cinderella, Superman or Harry Potter. But in "The Spiderwick Chronicles," which opens Feb.15, the young heroes are grappling not just with goblins, but with the wrenching split-up of their parents.
That's been a trend lately -- "The Golden Compass," "Enchanted," "Night at the Museum" and "Zathura" are just a few of the recent popcorn adventures for youngsters with parental turmoil as a backdrop.
"It's the bridge into creativity in the stories with young heroes," said Nick Nolte, the actor who plays the shape-shifting villain Mulgrath in "Spiderwick."
"The disruption and dissolving of the family covenant opens the door in the stories to adventure, darkness, independence and trials. It's hard to have adventures, really, in the lock-down of the family unit."
Nolte spoke with a world-weary, raspy chuckle that he has used through the years in plenty of grown-up films ("Affliction" and "The Prince of Tides" among them) and independent or foreign films. Lately, though, the man who has in the past mocked mind-numbing Hollywood blockbusters has been playing beastly bad guys in such films as "Hulk" and "Over the Hedge."
"I've been getting in touch with my monster -- although it's not like I've ever been far from my own inner monsters," said the 66-year-old actor who was living life on the Hollywood wild side for decades before that infamous police mug shot and DUI arrest in 2002.
What drew him to "Spiderwick" are the "archetypal characters, which can hold everything a human can be," the two-time Oscar nominee said.
"It's a great story and this is a great time for fantasy films."
"Spiderwick" begins with a frazzled mom (Mary-Louise Parker) and her twin sons, Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore), and daughter (Sarah Bolger) moving into an inherited mansion with, of course, a spooky history. Jared finds a curious old book in a secret room that teaches him about the unseen world of fairies, goblin and ogres, a book that the brutal Mulgrath covets.
"It was great fun for me," Nolte said. "But the research was a challenge. In 'Over the Hedge,' I played a bear and I spent all this time listening to the sounds they make when they fight and mate, when they're angry or happy. It's a lot harder to track down the sound of ogres."