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.