Ron is on his own this time around. Eleven-year-olds need vacations too, you know…
Welcome back to Daddy’s Little Monster… minus the Little Monster. As I’m writing this, Emma is off at the grandparents’, so I’m flying solo. Yeah, I know; I’m disappointed, too. I’ll try to ease your lowered expectations.
One of the things we’ve been doing here is helping to figure out what kinds of films are appropriate for the little monster in your life. And it’s not just about “age-appropriate content.” Sometimes it’s just about nurturing a kid’s love for the strange and supernatural – a “gateway.” For a lot of kids, that gateway is through the many fantasy films custom-made for kids and pre-teens. There are plenty of films to choose from here, and I’ve tried many of them with Emma – Cirque Du Freak, The Lord of the Rings and obviously, Harry Potter – all of which failed to strike the right note with her. One film, along with Hellboy, did make an impression on her and ended up shaping her interests in the genre. It clicked, and if your kids haven’t seen it, it might click with them too. I’m referring to 2008′s creature-filled fantasy adventure, The Spiderwick Chronicles.
The film, based on the series created by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, boils five books down to a one-and-done film with relative success. The premise is simple: a family moves into their ancestral home, where the three children (twin boys and their older sister) discover the journal of their great-great relative, Arthur Spiderwick. An Audobon-style cryptozoologist, Spiderwick documented the secret world that exists within our own – a world of fairies, sprites, goblins and ogres – in the pages of the book. Something from this strange world has been waiting 80 years to get its hands on that journal, and that’s when the fun begins.
Now before you say anything: yes, I wrote “fairies.” It is a fantasy film, and the usual tropes are present, yet there’s stuff here that also works as a horror movie for kids. You have likable protagonists, resourceful and brave, facing off against a supernatural threat that nobody else believes in. An old creepy mansion serves as the centrepiece for most of the film’s otherworldly goings-on. And there are monsters – oh, are there monsters – and this is why it’s here.
The film is filled with all manner of creatures from myth and folklore, from the vicious goblins (squat and toad-like, with claws and sharp bits of broken glass for teeth) to the “mole troll,” a reptilian juggernaut that chases the escaping kids in an underground passage. (My only complaint is that this part goes by too quickly, but kids will still eat it up.) Then there’s the “big bad” himself, Mulgarath, a brutish and cunning shape-shifting ogre who’s all manner of evil. (The thing also has Nick Nolte’s voice, and that doesn’t hurt, either.) Even the comic relief “good monsters” have a touch of the dark side to them. Thimbletack, the mouse-like brownie who was Spiderwick’s faithful servant, goes mini-Hulk when he’s agitated, becoming a green and angry boggart. Hogsqueal, a hobgoblin, is one of the kids’ greatest allies. He also has a predilection for eating live birds and does so a couple of times in the film. There’s enough creature-feature action here to whet the appetite of any young horror novice.
The set pieces involving these creatures could also have come straight out of a horror film. The troll chase, the numerous encounters with the goblins and especially the finale, where Mulgarath’s forces lay siege to Spiderwick Mansion and all manner of skin-melting, goblin-hacking chaos ensues. (Goblins don’t take well to tomato sauce…and the kids have tons to spare!) It’s all done within the boundaries of a PG-film, mind you – the violence in the movie owes more to Gremlins than anything else. The thrills are exciting but safe, the monsters just scary enough – there’s nothing in the film that should give any parent cause for concern. It’s a great primer, but it also has a lot in common with films and filmmakers we older horror fans hold dear. It shares a kinship with the works of Ray Harryhausen; his was the first name that sprang to mind when the kids take a ride on Spiderwick’s “pet” griffin. Watch this scene and I guarantee you’ll feel the same way. It also plays like a much safer take on the worlds imagined by Guillermo Del Toro, particularly the Hellboy films and the fantasy trappings found in Pan’s Labyrinth – worlds your kid might be more inclined to visit after seeing this film.
The Spiderwick Chronicles has its flaws, for certain – when you whittle a five-book tale into 90 minutes, there are bound to be – but the reason I’m recommending it goes beyond critical evaluation. What it does is evoke the kind of films we might have seen in our youth, the ones that fired up our imaginations and sent us off into the dark corners of the forest, looking for more. I can only speak from my experience with Emma, but her imagination got a kick-start from Spiderwick that none of the above-mentioned films seemed to provide. She began taking out books on folklore and monsters from the library. She bought the illustrated Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You (with gorgeous artwork by series artist DiTerlizzi) and studied all the details about these creatures, like a cryptozoologist-in-training. She began drawing these creatures (as well as her own creations) in her notebooks. As mentioned in another DLM, she also took to lining our windowsills with salt when no one was looking – one of the many protections against the supernatural found in Spiderwick’s journal. (By the way, the clean-up? Not fun.) In the end, it got her fired up about the possibilities of supernatural fiction. Hopefully, it works for your kids, too.
Thanks for your time, guys. I know, you weren’t here to read my ramblings. I promise, though, the big gun’s back in the house next time. Our next film rocked our socks off a couple of months ago and is finally hitting North American shores at the end of July. It’s Emma’s turn at bat, and she’s working without a net.
See ya next time. Keep it creepy, Little Monsters!