Beneath its entertaining plot, its mix of humorous and scary magical creatures, and its message about overcoming familial conflict, The Spiderwick Chronicles is a troubling film about divorce and its impact on children. It is always dangerous to read too much metaphorical depth into popular films, but it does not take much effort to see that many films featuring divorced families highlight the need for children to forge their own paths in the face of conflicting, immature parental models. Indeed, in the dominant culture, the quest of the child of divorce has become the normative quest for children. What is disturbing in Spiderwick is its manner of resolving conflict, exemplified in the final confrontation between a son and the evil creatures threatening his family — a resolution that registers as legitimate, if only for a moment, a homicidal rage at the absent father.
Based on a popular series of books, the new film features a recently separated woman, Helen Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) moving with her three kids into an old family estate —a building that, as the kids say, has that "old-people smell." It is also the secure hiding place of an old book, compiled by Helen's great uncle, Arthur Spiderwick (David Straithairn), that contains the secrets of a spirit world — and that bears a warning forbidding anyone to read it. Opening the book thrusts the family — reeling from a parental split and embroiled in petty squabbling — into a demanding and transformative adventure.
At the outset, older sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), a skilled fencer, acts the domineering sibling to her twin brothers (both played by Freddie Highmore), who are two quite different characters. Jared is rebellious, blames his mother for alienating his father, and has "anger issues," while the bookish Simon is "not into conflict." As odd things begin to happen throughout the house, Jared comes under fire, accused of various acts of mayhem and of lying to protect himself by blaming the events on invisible creatures. After he opens the book, he is chastised and then advised by a nine-inch tall creature called Thumbletak (voice of Martin Short), whose repeatedly swelling anger can be quelled only by large doses of honey. Thumbletak provides Jared with a Seeing Stone through which the spirit world comes into view.
Initially skeptical of Jared's wild claims, first his siblings and then his mother come to see the house and its environs for what they are: the epicenter of a battle between the forces of light and darkness. Another benign, humorous creature named Hogsqueal (voice of Seth Rogen), a hobgoblin with an enormous appetite for birds, provides comic relief and strategic advice for Jared. Meanwhile, the evil goblins who threaten the family — who are fighting to acquire Spiderwick's field guide to the fairy world — are led by Mulgarath, an evil, shape-shifting ogre who hopes to use the book's secrets to dominate the spirit world. Mulgarath first appears in human form, played by a yellow-eyed Nick Nolte — looking very much like one of his Malibu mug shots.
Beset by Mulgarath's minions, the children seek advice from their aunt Lucinda, the last occupant of Spiderwick, who is now in a mental institution because of her insistence that magical creatures carried away her father and continued to threaten their house. Lucinda tells the children of the day she last saw her father — some 80 years before — and how each day thereafter she would look down the drive expecting to see him return, as he promised, drawing pregnant tears from the Grace kids. The children's emotional response is of course in part a reflection of the absence of their own father. The film thus redoubles the issue of abandonment by fathers, although it ends up treating the two cases in vastly different ways.
As in The Lord of the Rings, the special object which lends this movie its name must be destroyed in order to keep it out of the hands of the evil ones bent on dominating the universe. But The Spiderwick Chronicles is less interested in mythic metaphysics than in sheer entertainment. And on that score it succeeds admirably. The goblins, ogres, trolls, and griffin are well conceived and their magic credible. The action sequences are well done and there is a lively balance between scary moments and scenes of genuine levity. Along the way, the film reveals the hitherto unknown powers of honey, salt, oatmeal, and especially tomato sauce.
As is typical in films of this sort, the trial of facing invisible powers operates as a sort of bonding ceremony for the family and aids the most vulnerable — in this case, Jared — in overcoming his fears and channeling his anger. And the film is perhaps to be credited for not forcing upon its plot a false happy ending. Yet, there is something deeply troubling about the way the film resolves family issues, particularly in the way the absent father ends up being depicted. Without wanting to give plot details away, let me just reiterate a salutary point made by Roger Ebert in his review of the film.
The scene in which the Grace kids' finally see their father (Andrew McCarthy) walking through the door of Spiderwick is so disturbing that, all by itself, it warrants a PG-13 rather than a PG rating for the film. The scene also raises questions about the film's family values. Moments after one-upping Oedipus, the film takes it all back, at least on the level of the literal action of the film. But, on the symbolic level, on the impression the images have on children, it is hard not to see the plot of the film as resolving the tensions of divorce by blaming the absent father for the child's experience of abandonment. Whereas Lucinda's father went away to fulfill a higher duty (and the film's finale allows Lucinda the satisfaction of having her deepest longing fulfilled), the Grace kids' dad simply preferred another woman, making the final plotline look like something out of a Lifetime movie of the week.
In her groundbreaking book, Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of the Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt argues on the basis of wide empirical evidence that children of divorce are forced to negotiate two incompatible and conflicting worlds; even in amicable divorces, conflict between parental worlds "exists unseen . . . within the inner life of the child." Marquardt observes that children in such circumstances must become "early moral forgers," determining, often prematurely and without adequate guidance, what their beliefs and values will be.
That sure sounds like the world of much Hollywood entertainment these days. The question is whether Hollywood's mythmaking offers anything to form rather than deform the moral imagination of children. In the case of Spiderwick, and despite its many commendable elements, the failure is dramatic and disconcerting.