The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)
New this week on DVD, 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, Spiderwick is actually about something.
And while like those earlier films Spiderwick involves a broken family, it also offers a moral perspective on divorce and parental fickleness absent in the other films.
Based on the best-selling pentalogy by Holly Black, Spiderwick tells the story of three children who find their home besieged by malevolent, unseen enemies just as their parents’ marriage is unraveling. (Spoiler warning.) While the family homestead has long been protected by a magical circle the goblins can’t cross, it turns out that protective circles can be broken as irrevocably as a child’s faith in a faithless parent.
Like divorce itself, Spiderwick is genuinely frightening — too frightening for younger kids. Yet there are also good creatures (“my guardian angel,” one is explicitly called). Other fairies are symbolically connected with death. They first seem cruel in taking loved ones away, but are later seen to reunite long-separated loved ones.
In today’s world, alas, it makes sense that family films should acknowledge the reality of broken families, yet I chafe at how films like Zathura and Night at the Museum normalize the subject. Spiderwick, like E.T., is raw with grief and anger over the breakup of the family — just how a family film should feel, in my book.
Also new on DVD, Caramel offers another interesting twist on a familiar genre. The story centers on a beauty salon as the hub of activity in the lives of several women. In many ways it resembles a Hollywood chick flick — except that it’s a Lebanese film set in Beirut.
Milder in content than its American counterparts (with a restrained PG rather than a brassy PG-13), Caramel is more mature in content, touching on dicey subjects from adultery to same-sex attraction without the adolescent brashness of home-grown versions. One character endures humiliation and shame as a result of an affair with a married man. Others struggle with the cult of beauty. In the film’s one notable caveat, there seems to be something between a shampoo girl and a beautiful customer, though other than hair-washing nothing happens between them.
One character is Muslim; most are Maronite Catholics, and rosaries, icons and a Marian procession are part of the fabric of the film. While religion isn’t as important to the characters as it could be, it’s intriguing to see Middle-eastern Christians and Muslims living and working side by side with no religious conflict or tension, facing more or less the same sorts of problems as characters in American studio comedies.