Modern-day characters are plopped into a world of classic fairy tales and fantasy-horror movie images in this inventive tale that could've been better scaled back. Plot twists keep the story moving in Nightbooks, but ultimately there are so many threats to the characters' lives, so many "this is the end" moments, that you find yourself hoping for some resolution, any resolution, after about an hour. This isn't ideal for a child-centric tale: We should only root for their survival. Combined with intricately-rich set designs, especially a cool skyscraper of a personal library, and over-the-top adult baddies, the constant tension can be exhausting. Winslow Fegley and Lidya Jewett are both fantastic, and Krysten Ritter seems to be having a great time vamping in monster boots and stylish witch-wear. The script has some creative and intelligent twists on the art of storytelling. When Natacha sighs, "writers -- so insecure" and Alex suffers writer's block or outwits his know-it-all audience of one, it can be laugh-out-loud funny. Writers will appreciate that in this world, telling stories saves lives (the film's tagline is "Write for your life").
But Nightbooks also would've done well to take its own advice when Natacha suggests that every good story hints at the truth -- the more truth, the more powerful the story. When Alex finally confronts the sadness and pain that brought him to this haunted house, his grade school drama feels almost too pedestrian for the rest of the fantastical tale. His captivity has such clear lessons for him in the "real world" that it would've made more sense in the resolution if he had just dreamt the whole thing, underscoring both his inventiveness and the social-emotional growth he needed. Instead, the film could feel a bit too creepy for some viewers with its depictions of child abductions, psychological trauma, and torture. Some of the violence is also too graphic for a children's film, even while other effects -- long shadows, conspicuous lightning, candy-colored vomit, the rudimentary films-within-the-film that bring Alex's stories to life -- are deliberately more spoof than spook.