And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may
freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree
of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat,
for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Based on a series of books for young people by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, director Mark Waters and team have given us a film that all members of the family can enjoy. (Though parents of preschool children are cautioned that some scary parts might be too intense for young children!) The cast that includes veterans such as David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker, Joan Plowright, and the voices of Nick Nolte, and Martin Short is top notch. Young Freddie Highmore easily holds his own in this distinguished company, playing twin brothers with very different temperaments.
In the prologue Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) is completing his research into the hidden world of fairies by entering all his knowledge into a homemade book he calls Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You. However, the hidden world not only contains benevolent fairies, but evil goblins and monsters, the leader of which wants to get hold of the book because of the many spells and charms which Arthur has recorded in it. With these the evil goblins can take over the world and destroy the fairies. Fearful of such an event, the fairies swarm over Arthur and conduct him to their realm far, far away. Arthur’s little girl Lucinda witnesses the abduction. No one will believe her tales of fairies, so when she grows up, she is committed to an insane asylum.
Jump ahead 80 years: freshly separated from her husband, Mom (Mary-Louise Parker), the great-great niece of Arthur, arrives with her three reluctant children at the old Spiderwick mansion, her intention to begin life anew away from the crowded streets of New York City. Daughter Mallory (Sarah Bolger) is a teenager barely tolerant of her two junior high-aged brothers. Jared is sullen and resentful, angry over the separation and certain that Mom is the reason his dad left, whereas the more docile Simon goes with the flow of things. During his exploration of the house Jared discovers an old dumbwaiter and tries it out, coming upon the secret room where Arthur Spiderwick had conducted his experiments and hidden his book. There is a note with the book warning the finder not to read the volume, but like Pandora (or Eve), Jared plows ahead, opening and reading about the world hidden from ordinary eyes. The boy also comes upon Thimbletack, an elfin little creature (Martin Short) supposedly guarding the mansion, who is very upset that Jared has opened the forbidden book. The calamitous events that follow include the awakening from slumber of the deadly goblins and monsters, thus putting all in danger and setting the three children off on a journey in search of Lucinda, and eventually even of Arthur.
The special creature effects are seamlessly integrated into the live action, convincing us of the reality of the world visible only through a special lens or after the hobgoblin Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen) spits into a person’s eyes. The latter provides plenty of laughs in his obsession for chasing anything with feathers for his meals. The film combines thrilling adventure with a very real family problem, that of the feelings of a child resulting from the split up of parents . Children sometimes take the side of one parent against the other, often with insufficient information, as in Jared’s case. This is dealt with in such an understanding way that it cannot help but be useful to young viewers, as well as to the adults who wisely accompany them to this family friendly film—though again, remember the earlier warning concerning preschool children.
We offer the following as possible questions that adults might raise with children (though probably not all at once, nor in a didactic way!).
1) Which character seems the most like yourself? Are you more like Jared—inquisitive and rebellious—or Simon, easy going and accepting of authority?
2) What do you think you might have done in Jared’s place? Close the book and leave it alone? How is curiosity both a good and a dangerous thing? How does something we do often bring on other things that we had not thought about? If you do not know the story of Pandora’s Box, look it up in a book of mythology. Also, read the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3. Have you ever done something you were told not to do? What happened afterward, and how did you feel about it?
3) Why is Jared so upset with his mother? What has he assumed, that is whom does he blame for his father leaving the family? How is this unfair to his mom? Do you think this happens in real life? How is the break up of a marriage more complicated than just blaming one parent?
4) Why doesn’t Mallory believe Jared at first? Would you? Compare this to the story of Lucy trying to convince her brother and sister of the reality of Narnia in The Chronicles of Narnia.
5) In this story the world of fairies and goblins cannot be seen without special power—either with the lens given Jared, or by having one’s eyes spat upon by Hogsqueal. We know this is make-believe, but how is this similar to our belief in the God of the Bible, whom we cannot see? How is faith like the special lens or power through which we “see” (or believe in) God? How is the Bible important for this? Think about what a famous religious leader once said: “The Bible is the spectacles (eye glasses) through which we see God.” (John Calvin)
6) What did you think of Arthur Spiderwick? How is Jared a lot like him? Do you think that there are some things that maybe we should be very careful about exploring, or maybe even not deal with? How can this also be dangerous—that is, if we do not follow our curiosity about the world of nature, would there be any science?
7) What did you like most about this picture? What do you think you have learned from it? Is it one that you’d like to see again?