I think it was six years ago, coming home from a screening of Zathura, that I started seriously wrestling with the problem of what I’ve come to call the Broken Family Film.
A broken home in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch.
On the one hand, marriage and an intact household with father and mother raising children together is and will always be the ideal, the standard, the norm. Divorce has become “normal” in the sense that it is a matter of common experience, but we don’t want it to be normalized in the sense of being accepted as something that just happens and is just an inevitable part of life, something that is nobody’s fault or is all for the best.
On the other hand, given the reality of ever larger numbers of children with parents who aren’t married and don’t live together, we can’t expect every family in the movies and TV—even in children’s entertainment—to look like the ideal. Stories can’t ignore real life, or they become irrelevant. We need stories to explore how life ought to be, but also to explore how life actually is. Children growing up in broken homes need stories that resonate with their experiences.
The thing is, the term Broken Family Films is ambiguous. It can mean family films about broken families, made by and for a culture of broken families. But it can also mean family films that are broken in one way or another. But how? There is brokenness and brokenness—sometimes wholesome, sometimes not.
For example, a Broken Family Film can be brokenhearted about about the breakup of the family—like Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which is rife with unresolved grief and anger at the unseen absentee father who has bolted to Mexico with his mistress Sally, also unseen.
On the other hand, Broken Family Films may also be readier to make peace with the broken home as the way things are—to prod characters unready or unwilling to embrace the post-divorce state of affairs along their developmental arcs toward acceptance and moving on. Take The Santa Clause and Night at the Museum, in which (respectively) Tim Allen and Ben Stiller play ditched ex-husbands struggling for dignity and self-respect as their sons watch Mom move on with her new Mr. Right. To the extent that such fantasies paper over the trauma of divorce, they might be considered “broken” family films in a sense less welcome than the emotional brokenness of E.T.
Broken family films are not always about post-divorce families. The plots of Will Ferrell’s Elf and Pixar’s Ratatouille each turn on a major character of illegitimate parentage (with a father who never knew of his offspring’s existence, and a blood test to confirm paternity). Orphanhood remains a common condition in family films—often without “broken family” angst, though not always, Lilo & Stitch being a poignant example of an angsty Broken Family Film about orphaned sisters. Divorce, though, remains the main factor in Broken Family Films from Disney’s Enchanted to Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Reflecting on these and other Broken Family Films, I was struck by how often the term “broken home” seems to be more than a mere metaphor—how often the trauma of a broken household is poetically reflected in physical threats or damage to the actual house.
For example, in Lilo & Stitch, Lilo and Nani’s house is literally blown apart and burned to the ground by battling aliens. In Zathura, the movie that started me thinking about these questions, the brothers’ house is magically uprooted and thrown into outer space, where it is systematically demolished by threats ranging from meteor showers to alien attacks.
In the granddaddy of all Broken Family Films, E.T. Elliot’s home is broken into and invaded by terrifying, faceless men in spacesuits. (Compare that frightening domestic invasion scene to the sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Teri Garr’s character is terrorized in her home by a flying saucer at the same time that her husband’s increasingly aberrant behavior threatens their marriage. The catch is that in both Spielberg scenes the seemingly menacing assailants turn out to be friendly. By contrast, the Spielberg-produced Poltergeist seems to reflect similar anxieties on the level of imagery, though Tobe Hooper’s film, with its intact family, lacks the marital angst of Spielberg’s films.)
Among all these, four movies stand out to me as outstanding in their use of house-household symbolism to convey the trauma of a broken home through trauma inflicted on a physical house:
My essay “A House Divided: Broken Homes, Flying Houses, Divorce, and Death in Family Fantasy Films,” written for Image Journal, explores in depth how house/household symbolism plays out in these family film stories of divorce and death.
Like Dorothy’s house, uprooted in fairy-tale response to her running away, physical domiciles in one family film after another are displaced, torn asunder, and undergo fantastic, traumatic crises and transformations in visionary mirroring of the upheaval in the characters’ lives. Among the more striking examples of this poetic linking of house and household are Jon Favreau’s intriguing 2005 fantasy Zathura, Gil Kenan’s 2006 Halloween tale Monster House, Mark Waters’s smart, scary 2008 thriller The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Pete Docter’s 2009 Pixar fantasy Up.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.