Twins Jared and Simon Grace and their older sister Mallory already have it rough. Their parents are divorcing and they’re moving away from New York City to live in a creepy old house that smells like old people. (“It’s just an observation. It’s not a judgment,” insists one of the twins.) The subtle odor is understandable, given that Helen Grace has inherited the place from her Aunt Lucinda, a sweet 86-year-old who appears to have lost her marbles and now resides in a nearby sanatorium.
Soon after the Grace children arrive at their new abode, they discover that there’s more to the house—and to Great-Aunt Lucinda’s insanity—than meets the eye.
There are noises that can’t be explained. Items that disappear. Strange stores in the pantry. Writing that appears from nowhere. Jared is the first to become curious and start exploring, but his prowling around only results in heightened family tension. At first.
Ultimately, he makes a startling discovery: The Grace family’s property and the neighboring woods are inhabited by thousands of magical creatures including benign brownies, fairies and sprites. Goblins and ogres are kept away by an invisible force field placed around the house by Lucinda’s father, Arthur Spiderwick. Why? There’s a treasure in the house that the baddies will go to great lengths to procure.
Jared, Simon and Mallory are forced to rise above their circumstances to protect Great-Great-Uncle Arthur’s most important secrets—secrets about this fantasy world that could impact the wellbeing of all humanity.
The Spiderwick Chronicles does a respectable job of treating the divorce issue with depth and sensitivity. The children’s different emotional responses are explored, and it’s clear that the parental discord that led to the divorce is bad for them. Jared especially is shown to need and want his father’s presence and affection, and he’s clearly crushed when he realizes that Dad has chosen to abandon the family.
Filmmakers also use the subplot of the fracturing family to highlight relationship growth. In a heated argument, Jared tells his mom that he hates her and doesn’t want to live with her. Later, he deeply regrets his words and apologizes. Mom apologizes to him for not being as forthcoming with the truth as she should have been.
Rather than buying into the commonly held belief that elderly Lucinda Spiderwick is crazy, the children choose to dig deeper into the mystery that surrounds her house. They end up recognizing that she possesses special wisdom that’s essential to them in their quest. Additionally, a long separation between Lucinda and her father is shown to have had negative effects on her, and their eventual reunion is presented as a healing event.
Sibling rivalry and the blame game give way to true partnership and protectiveness among the Grace children. Each child has his or her own unique talents, and the three gain the victory only when they learn to capitalize on one another’s strengths. Beyond that, their quest is a noble one, with clear battle lines between good and evil, and the good guys risking their lives for the sake of a cause larger than themselves.
The existence of magical creatures such as fairies, goblins, sylphs, sprites and boggarts is not explained, nor does it necessarily seem that the filmmakers want audiences to think that those creatures exist in our world. It’s just taken for granted as a part of this fictional story. That said, specific references are made to charms and potions. To summon their leader, the goblins chant his name.
The cosmic face-off at the center of the plot goes like this: Arthur Spiderwick discovers that there are magical creatures living in the human world, and they’re visible to people only when they want to be. Humans can gain the ability to see these beings at will by looking through a special stone, or by being spat upon by the friendly hobgoblin Hogsqueal (a particularly slimy affair).
For the purposes of the story, most magical creatures are friendly, but there’s an assortment of malevolent beings who all serve one big, bad ogre named Mulgarath. Spiderwick spends his whole life recording the secrets he’s learned about these magical creatures—both good and evil—only to discover too late that if his “field guide” were to fall into Mulgarath’s hands, the ogre could use it to kill all humans and decent magical creatures. So it’s Spiderwick’s book that Jared, Simon and Mallory must protect, lest all that’s good in the world be lost. (Several times when Jared opens it, wind mysteriously blows and disembodied voices howl.)
The conflict is oversimplified to allow it to fit into a child’s story. And though it’s clearly intended to come off as fantastical, it does in some ways mirror the real-life clash of good and evil “in the heavenly realms.”
It is mentioned that part of the reason for the Grace parents’ divorce is that Dad is “with someone else—he’s moved in with her.”
When Jared first finds Spiderwick’s book, there’s a note attached, warning potential readers that they “face a deadly consequence.” The desire of the digitally animated Mulgarath and his followers to kill any who oppose them is a refrain that’s constantly repeated. Hogsqueal says that with just one stolen page from the field guide, Mulgarath gained the knowledge needed to kill his whole family. Hogsqueal is out to avenge his relatives’ deaths by killing Mulgarath, though he’s easily distracted by his appetite for birds. (He gobbles down several.)
The peril to the Grace family feels quite real. Mulgarath’s goblins repeatedly attack the humans by approaching invisibly, then grabbing their victims by the legs and dragging them around, while hitting, scratching and biting them. A goblin bite on Simon’s leg bleeds for a long time. The goblins also lock Simon in a cage and prepare to cook him for dinner.
To defend themselves when the force field is penetrated, the Grace kids put into practice some of Spiderwick’s field guide facts and counterattack the goblins with tomato juice, oatmeal and salt, all of which burn the flesh of the gross gremlins. (This is shown in brief flashes of mutilated digital flesh, followed by the dissolution of the creatures into blobs of green goo on the floor.)
Knives and Mallory’s fencing foil are also used, since steel both burns and cuts goblin flesh. At one point, Mallory stabs a goblin in the eye. Goblins and a troll are run over by trucks on two different occasions. Mulgarath breaks into the Grace house and wreaks havoc on the place, trying to destroy the family members as he does so. Jared comes closest to being killed when the gigantic ogre nearly knocks him from the third-story roof.
[Spoiler Warning] In the end, the shape-shifting Mulgarath takes the form of a bird and is bloodlessly dispatched by Hogsqueal. Before that happens, though, the beastie changes form to appear as if he’s Dad. Figuring out the ruse, Jared stabs him in the gut with a kitchen knife.
Bickering between Jared and Mallory occasionally turns physical, with her hitting his shoulder and then jabbing at him with her foil. There’s no indication that she actually intends to harm him, and he responds by parrying with a stick. Angry, Jared uses that stick to whale away at the back bumper of the family SUV. He and Simon tussle, slap and roll around on the ground during an argument. Mallory wakes one morning to find her hair splayed and tied to her headboard.
God’s name is misused about a half-dozen times, primarily by the Grace children. “H‑‑‑” is spoken once. The head goblin starts to say “oh s‑‑‑” but is interrupted with an explosion.
“Hogsqueal is voiced with great humor—and lots of inappropriate noises—by Seth Rogen,” reads the movie’s production notes. Indeed.
Of more serious note, Jared lies to his siblings and to Thimbletack. And Hogsqueal’s haphazard path toward vengeance is never neutralized with any wisdom related to the downside of revenge.
As is the case with so many fantasy fables—especially those crafted for young audiences—Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black’s The Spiderwick Chronicles was a series of bestselling books before it became a movie. Thankfully, despite the fact that all five books were merged into a single script, this isn’t an overly ambitious adventure; on the contrary, the simple plot is enough, but not too much, for a 96-minute kids’ story.
Fairies, griffins, sprites, goblins, ogres and trolls dominate the magical landscape. But it’s everyday items such as tomato sauce and salt that most effectively combat the baddies—while honey humors at least one of the good guys. So it’s not wands and spells that save the day here, it’s teamwork and kitchen supplies.
To create this world, DiTerlizzi and Black were obviously inspired by the likes of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s age-old fairy tales. DiTerlizzi says, “There was always a clever Jack to outwit the giant, or a resourceful prince who had to do something ingenious to escape the goblin’s castle. The idea is that knowledge is power, and how they use it (in this case, how the kids use Arthur’s field guide), is the crux of the plot.”
“The idea here,” adds producer Mark Canton, “was to have a real world where inexplicable and often frightening things happen. What grounds it and makes it resonate is that we are dealing with a real family with real problems, and through the adventure they are able to find the magic inside themselves.”
Is that magic rooted in anything beyond The Brothers Grimm, then? Yes and no. “We’ve all come across stones on the ground that have little holes in them,” says production designer James Bissell. “And when you look through them, you tend to see things somewhat differently. It’s almost magical, and sometimes what you see through them gives you a somewhat different perception of reality.”
[Spoiler Warning] That’s pretty accurate as to how this film works. Magical—fantastical—creatures mostly serve as stand-ins for real-life troubles (and helpers). Mulgarath—of whom screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick says, “We started with a Lucifer/fallen angel kind of myth”—in general represents the bad that can befall a person. Specifically, for the Graces, he is a symbol of the dad who abandoned and heaped misery on his family. Similarly, the goblins can easily be seen as the worries and strife that can so quickly and invisibly intrude when you don’t have the right glasses on that allow you to see and navigate the world around you. Thimbletack, the brownie who turns into a boggart when he’s angry, parallels Jared’s struggle to control his rage and resentment.
A magic circle of protection afforded by a ring of mushrooms surrounding the house, meanwhile, seems to more than just hint at the idea that safety lies within the confines of one’s family. So when Dad breaks that circle of safety by leaving Mom for greener pastures, as it were, he becomes—for all intents and purposes—Mulgarath. And, so, we’re, um, full circle back to the creature-feature symbolism.
The Spiderwick Chronicles specializes in showing us the value of fully living in the now—and devoting ourselves to those we say we love. “The fantasy world ultimately allows them to more clearly see and understand their own reality,” director Mark Waters says. Onscreen, Spiderwick puts it this way to his grown daughter: “I was so captivated by all the magical creatures I found that I lost sight of the one I already had.”
The story runs deeper than expected, then. And there’s a lot to unpack after the final credits fade. But moral luggage is accompanied by enough extraneous baggage that families with young children, or those unwilling to take the time to discuss the subtext should stay well away from Spiderwick. Because left “as is,” kids will merely be feasting on visions of a magical monster mash complete with chases through underground tunnels, sword battles staged against force field barriers, a kid stabbing his “dad” and a frenetic fight to the death that utterly wrecks their house.