The Spiderwick Chronicles is a smart, scary fantasy family thriller that offers depth and meaning in a genre littered with mere competent entertainment. Where films like Zathura and Night at the Museum offer roller-coaster excitement but little more, The Spiderwick Chronicles is actually about something.
Family films involving magic and adventure have taken a dark turn in recent years, from the Harry Potter series to the likes of Zathura, Monster House, The Golden Compass and the Narnia films. Most of these movies offer roller-coaster excitement, but little depth or meaning. For the most part, they’re all text, no subtext.
Many involve children embattled by mystical enemies, and broken families are a recurring theme, but there’s seldom any larger insight or moral vision here; it’s just how things are. Even with the Narnia films, the filmmakers have been at pains to disavow the meaning of the books, preferring plausible deniability over honoring the text and its themes.
Based on the best-selling pentalogy by Holly Black, The Spiderwick Chronicles takes on tough themes including divorce, parental abandonment and death with honesty and wisdom. In this movie, it’s not for nothing that the children find their house besieged by malevolent, unseen goblins just as their parents’ marriage is unraveling.
The film opens with the Grace family, sans dad, arriving from New York at a delapidated old family estate in rural Vermont. Mom Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) is doing her best to hold it together, with eldest Mallory (Sarah Bolger) supportive but identical twins Jared and Simon (Freddie Highmore in dual roles) split. Compliant Simon doesn’t “do conflict,” but sullen Jared blames Mom for pushing Dad away, and has no intention of sticking around any longer than their father’s next visit.
“You’re not my mother, Mallory,” Jared gripes at his sister. “You’re so annoying — you think you know everything!”
“Well, I know stuff you don’t,” Mallory flings back.
“Like what?” Jared demands.
Mallory scowls, but bites her tongue. “Nothing,” she mutters.
Soon, though, the shoe is on the other foot as Jared is the one who begins to notice things the others don’t. The house is the estate of Helen’s great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), an eccentric naturalist — or supernaturalist — whose life’s work was devoted to fairies, goblins and trolls. Before long, Jared and the others discover that his house is a locus of sorts touching the unseen world.
While the hidden world involves frightening creatures, there are good ones too (“my guardian angel,” one is explicitly called), some beautiful, some powerful. There’s also a race of fairies symbolically connected with death and the afterlife who first seem cruel in taking loved ones away from their family, but are later touchingly seen to reunite long-separated loved ones.
Of all other films of this ilk, the one that most warrants comparison with Spiderwick is Zathura, which also had two brothers with an older teenaged sister living with one of two divorced parents in a spacious old house full of woodwork — and a dumbwaiter! — assailed from without by paranormal forces.
Yet it’s the differences between the two that tell, making The Spiderwick Chronicles play almost as a critique of Zathura. In my review of the earlier film I noted now the ruined house, magically restored in the last scene, seemed almost but not quite to suggest a secret wish for the family unit to be restored. (Spoiler warning: Skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen Spiderwick.) In this film, by contrast, it really seems significant that while for the moment the house is safe, protected by a magical circle the goblins can’t cross, protective circles can be shattered as irrevocably as a child’s faith in a fickle parent. And the man who wears your father’s face but doesn’t tell you the truth about his perfidy… he’s a troll, plain and simple.
Like divorce itself, The Spiderwick Chronicles is genuinely frightening — too frightening for younger and more sensitive kids. It’s also worth noting that the depiction of the unseen world isn’t balanced: Grotesque evil is powerful, but the only impressively powerful icon of goodness we see, a gryphon, isn’t effectively used in the story. (Perhaps the gryphon was so powerful that the filmmakers didn’t know how to include it without undermining the gravity of the threat to the children.) And the portrayal of the twin brothers, compliant Simon and sullen Jared, is somewhat reflective of Hollywood’s characteristic sympathy for the rebel.
But the film’s virtues carry the day. In a world in which, sadly, divorce is a reality of life for countless children and their peers, it makes sense that movies should depict broken as well as happy families. Yet I chafe at the way films like Zathura and Night at the Museum treat the subject as the way things are. The Spiderwick Chronicles, like E.T., is angry and bitter about the breakup of the family. For my money, that’s how a broken family film should feel.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.