A House Divided: Broken Homes, Flying Houses, Divorce, and Death in Family Fantasy Films
This essay was written for Image Journal.
By Steven D. Greydanus
“There’s no place like home.”
It’s been over seven decades since Dorothy Gale murmured those reassuring words, ruby-slippered heels clicking beneath her. “Home” evokes associations of safety and security, whether in baseball, hide-and-seek, or board games like “Sorry” — but even in 1939 “home” wasn’t always the ideal picture of father, mother, and children safely under one roof. Dorothy was an orphan, to start with, and home was a place she started out running away from. Even when she returned, she wasn’t safe; a twister blew in a window, knocking her cold, and seemingly uprooted the house itself, carrying it far away — though in the end she found her house on its foundations and all as it should be.
With respect to the uncertainties of home life, what was already a reality for Dorothy looms much larger for family film audiences today. Starting with Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, what might be called broken family films — films about broken families, made by and for a culture in which half of all marriages end in divorce and fewer children than ever are being raised by both parents under one roof — have become increasingly common. Such films may be no less fantastic and escapist than The Wizard of Oz, with imaginary creatures and unearthly goings-on of all sorts, but the underlying reality is a world in which marriage and family are far less permanent than they once were.
In a number of recent broken family films, “broken home” is not just a metaphor. Like Dorothy’s house, uprooted in fairy-tale response to her running away, physical domiciles in one family film after another are displaced, torn asunder, and undergo fantastic, traumatic crises and transformations in visionary mirroring of the upheaval in the characters’ lives. Among the more striking examples of this poetic linking of house and household are Jon Favreau’s intriguing 2005 fantasy Zathura, Gil Kenan’s 2006 Halloween tale Monster House, Mark Waters’s smart, scary 2008 thriller The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Pete Docter’s 2009 Pixar fantasy Up.
All four films touch in one way or another on themes of death and marital dissolution, events that rock families to their foundations. Two — Zathura and The Spiderwick Chronicles — are live-action adventures, based on children’s books, and focus on families broken apart by marital division; the other two — Monster House and Up — are original computer-animated fantasies, and focus on childless unions ending in death. Connective threads run in other directions as well.
Zathura is based on a picture book by the acclaimed illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, creator of Jumanji and The Polar Express. Like The Spiderwick Chronicles, it focuses on a broken family with three siblings, two young brothers — one surly, the other sensitive — with an older teenaged sister (the latter being slow to believe the boys about the paranormal goings-on). Both stories are set in atmospheric old houses rich with wainscoting, in which the siblings are besieged by paranormal forces that batter and devastate. In Zathura, the house is actually uprooted and hurled away, not merely over the rainbow, but into outer space, where it is incrementally demolished by one danger after another. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, the house is metaphysically cast adrift when a spell protecting it from evil forces is broken.
One other similarity is worth noting: in both films the elegant old house is not the original family home, but a new home to which one of the parents has turned in parting ways from the other. Even so, it is difficult not to see the destruction of the physical house as a potent symbol of angst over the dissolution of the family. This is especially true in The Spiderwick Chronicles, which almost seems to play as a commentary on the earlier Zathura.
Like its predecessor Jumanji, Zathura is a story about siblings playing a magical board game that comes to alarming life — in this case, a tabletop space opera in which the draw of a card may menace bickering brothers Walter and Danny with meteor showers, homicidal robots, gravity wells, or Zorgon attacks. The filmmaker’s decision to depict a post-divorce scenario (rather than the intact family of the book) substantially changes the dynamics of the story. In part it suggests the influence of E.T., which is seen throughout Zathura — though Zathura’s attitude toward the dissolution of the family is markedly different. E.T. wore its grief on its sleeve; it was raw with pain and anger over the father’s abandonment of his wife and children for another woman. Zathura offers a more muted and amicable picture of post-divorce family life and joint custody, though tensions simmer below the surface.
Surly Walter is resentful, but his resentment is initially diffuse: everything is “not fair,” from the number of days the siblings spend with each of their parents to the number of tosses that Dad rations out playing catch before heading inside to work. Dad calmly holds the line for the most part, though he briefly loses his cool and admits, “I don’t like the situation either — it sucks,” even if he seems to be speaking more about work obligations than the realities of joint custody.
The brothers’ conflict is explicitly linked to the divorce, which Walter blames on the younger Danny’s arrival. A key exchange ties the boys’ quest to finish the game and return home — substantially Walter’s quest, once Danny decides he doesn’t want to play any more — with Walter’s longing for his pre-divorce and even pre-Danny life.
“I just want to go home,” Walter tells Danny, pleading with him to take his next turn. “Don’t you want to go home?”
But Danny, who never knew the happy home Walter remembers, isn’t so sure. “What’s so great about home anyway?” he mutters.
“Everything was great until you came along,” Walter retorts. At another point he shouts, “It’s your fault Mom and Dad got divorced! Everything is your fault!”
Walter’s nostalgia for the happy home before Danny and the divorce is darkly expressed in a kind of alternate-reality scenario in which Walter (or another version of Walter) magically wishes Danny was never born. With that fateful wish, an alternate-reality Walter becomes stranded in the outer space of the game (since both players are required to finish the game and reset the pieces), where he remains in limbo for fifteen years until being rescued by his younger self, or rather by Danny, who draws a card that brings back older Walter in the guise of the “astronaut.”
Ultimately, Walter and Danny play the game to the end — at which point the pieces are reset and they return home to find the house magically restored, with no sign of anything that happened. As the boys excitedly assail their father (returning from his Saturday meeting) with the wild tale, the movie flirts with the notion that, like Dorothy, the boys might have dreamed up the whole adventure … but no, their older sister remembers it too.
In view of all that has preceded it, the chirpy tone of the denouement feels glib. Walter’s comments about “going home” and how “great” everything once was offer some justification for connecting the magical restoration of the house with a secret desire to have an intact family again. But while the house is set to rights, the family isn’t. The house is still Dad’s house, not Mom’s, and Mom is still coming to pick up the siblings for the next three or four days. That may be true to life, and good art as far as it goes. But where E.T. ended on a wistful, tearjerking note in keeping with the messiness of Elliott’s life, Zathura seems eager to forget the knotty questions it has raised, leaving everyone upbeat and cheerful.
The implicit message is familiar to many children of divorce: Going forward means learning to play the game: to take turns; to spin the dial and take what comes; to move along the track set before you. The glib denouement glosses over the problem that the messiness of Walter and Danny’s life is bigger than shattered wainscoting. A magically restored house is not the same as wiping away every tear.
The Spiderwick Chronicles
If Zathura at least partially glosses over the rough patches, The Spiderwick Chronicles and Up do the opposite — particularly the former. Both films feature a young boy who struggles to be loyal and believe in an absentee father who is off with another woman, eventually succumbing to disappointment and disillusionment. In Up, this is Russell the Wilderness Explorer, who makes awkward excuses about how busy his father is, reminisces nostalgically about times they spent together, and wistfully hopes that his father will show up for his medal ceremony.
This, though, is minor compared to the ragged emotion of The Spiderwick Chronicles, adapted from a bestselling pentalogy by Holly Black, which even more than E.T. reels from betrayal and rages at the faithless parent whose desertion has torn the world apart. The story opens with the suggestively named Grace family arriving sans father at the Spiderwick estate, the long-deserted home of Mom’s great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick. Older Mallory and compliant Simon are supportive of Mom, but sullen Jared is firmly in Dad’s camp, blaming Mom for pushing Dad away, and hopes to rejoin Dad at the earliest opportunity — hopefully when he arrives for a promised visit.
What is most striking about The Spiderwick Chronicles is the exactness of the house-household symbolism. At a time when their parents’ marriage is compromised, Jared and his siblings discover that the house they have moved into is under siege by invisible armies of malevolent goblins and trolls led by a shape-shifting ogre named Mulgarath. At first it seems that they are safe inside the house, which is encircled by a magical barrier created long ago by Arthur Spiderwick as a defense against the forces of darkness. As long as the protective circle remains unbroken, and the children remain in the circle, they are safe from the goblins.
But the circle around the house, like the parents’ marriage, has been fractured. A fragment of Arthur’s research has fallen into the goblins’ hands, and they have learned the secret of the circle and how to destroy it. As darkness descends, an increasingly desperate Jared places call after call to the father he still believes in, hoping against hope that he will come and rescue them — only to learn, as the sun sets, that their father has abandoned his family for another woman and isn’t coming. The circle is broken; the house is unprotected; the goblins are coming.
As in Zathura, the Spiderwick estate crumbles under a withering assault of unearthly forces — but here it is no game. No spinning dials or all-powerful cards manipulate the forces arrayed against the Graces; no magical reset awaits at the end to put the house to rights, let alone the household. The damage has been done; the devastation must be lived with, or at best coped with through ordinary hard work.
Then comes the sharpest twist of the knife. As the battered Graces begin to pick themselves up amid the chaos of the ravaged house, the door opens — and there stands Jared’s father, bewildered, concerned. Jared cautiously confronts him, offering him the chance to confess his faithlessness. When Dad doesn’t seem to know what Jared wants, Jared unexpectedly stabs his father with a knife — correctly guessing that it is not his father at all, but the shape-shifting Mulgarath. Jared has learned a painful lesson: the man who wears his father’s face, who smiles at Jared and tells him he loves him, but has nothing to say about his perfidy or the havoc he has caused — that man is an ogre.
At the same time, The Spiderwick Chronicles offers hope for redemption and reconciliation, even beyond the grave. The film introduces us to Arthur Spiderwick’s daughter Lucinda, an elderly woman who spent her life in a psychiatric hospital after witnessing her father spirited away from the earth by a race of fairies called the Sylph. A flashback of young Lucinda screaming for her father while the Sylph carry him off into the sky is wrenching, and one of the most potent images of the trauma of a parent’s death that I can remember in any family film. Later the children discover that the Sylph have conveyed Uncle Arthur to an ambiguous otherworld from which he can never return.
At the very end, this subplot takes a surprisingly transcendent turn. The Graces pick up elderly Lucinda from the psychiatric hospital and bring her back to the Spiderwick estate — where they are unexpectedly hailed by Arthur Spiderwick descending from the sky on a cloud of Sylph. Hovering inches above the ground, Arthur explains that he cannot leave the Sylph and return to the mortal world without reverting to his true age and turning into dust — but Lucinda asks to come with him. As she steps from the mortal coil onto the Sylph cloud, Lucinda reverts to her six-year-old self, and father and daughter float away together. The cruelty of death has become kindness; death has reunited those whom it once separated.
It would be appealing to see the Sylph and their otherworld as images of angels and heaven, but The Spiderwick Chronicles won’t quite permit easy identifications. The Sylph are too capricious, their otherworld too illusory and lacking in true beatitude, even for Arthur Spiderwick. Nevertheless, the resonances are close enough, particularly at the denouement, that we cannot help thinking of them.
Just as Zathura and The Spiderwick Chronicles are linked by striking similarities, so are Monster House and Up. Each of these computer-animated fantasies centers on a crotchety, reclusive, childless old widower occupying a house that is as much a character as the human beings — a house seemingly with a mind of its own. In both films, the late wife is still very much present in the house, even identified with it. The old man wants desperately to be left alone with his memories, but the world presses in on him and will not leave him in peace. Among other things, he is harassed by a young boy who resists the old man’s best efforts to get rid of him.
In both films, the old man’s frustrations eventually lead to an act of violence that critically alters the situation, and sets the plot in motion. Uniformed authorities arrive, and the old man can no longer stay in the house — but neither will he and the house be separated. Drastic action is called for, and the house itself is uprooted and heads off in pursuit of something that has been lost. Finally, in each film it becomes clear that the house has become a trap for the widower — it may once have connected him to his late wife, but it has become something morbid that will destroy him unless he can let it go.
This lesson is driven home with gleefully macabre excess in Monster House, a rare animated family film that dares to venture into primal fears of haunted houses and graveyards — of dark forces that are not just spooky or macabre, but sinister and even vengeful. With effective misdirection, Monster House suggests that old man Nebbercracker — for decades the terror of every neighborhood child unlucky enough to have a stray ball or kite go down on his perilous lawn, and rumored to have murdered his long-gone wife — has abruptly died on Halloween afternoon, and all the old man’s fury at trespassers now haunts the house, threatening a trick-or-treat massacre.
The reality is that Nebbercracker (who hasn’t died after all) actually spent those decades protecting the neighbors, chasing them away for their own good while trying to placate the angry presence in the house: the ghost of his wife Constance. Constance’s nasty, brutish, and short life — she was a circus side-show fat lady much abused by food-throwing gawkers — came to a grotesque end long ago when, raging against mocking bullies, she accidentally fell headlong into the foundations of the house Nebbercracker was building for them, and was buried alive in wet cement.
Embedded in the house’s foundations, Constance doesn’t merely haunt Nebbercracker’s house in the traditional way; she becomes the house, or the house becomes her. Its windows are her eyes, its recesses her innards, its furnace her beating heart. Eventually, rather than be separated from Nebbercracker, the house physically uproots itself and lurches along pursuing him — until at last Nebbercracker puts Constance’s spirit to rest by triggering an explosion that destroys the house. Amid the shattered debris, Constance’s ghost appears to Nebbercracker — no longer angry, but joyful and loving, and so they are momentarily reunited before her spirit departs for whatever final destination awaits her.
Hanging over Monster House is an important interpretive question: What is the house, and what is Nebbercracker’s relationship to it? Is Nebbercracker a husband haunted by his wife, albeit hideously transformed, to whom he still has marital obligations? Or is he a widower haunted by an unhappy spirit with no living claim on him? (A ghost may seem to be the person we knew in life, and yet not be. When Scrooge asks his first spectral visitor who he is, the spirit corrects, “Ask me who I was,” and goes on to answer, “In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”)
On this question hangs the meaning of the story. If Constance is dead, and the house is only a monstrous something that approximates her — a spectral distillation of all her resentments and insecurities, rather than the living person Nebbercracker married — then the story becomes a tale of a man trapped for decades by grief and guilt, devoting his life to honoring the memory of a life together that never was. But if the house is Constance herself, then Monster House can be seen as a disturbing parable about mental illness and euthanasia, in which a long-suffering husband finally liberates his wife and himself with a lethal injection of dynamite.
A case can be made either way. On the one hand, Nebbercracker talks and acts as if the house is his wife. The house evidently thinks of itself the same way, and its rage and jealousy are in keeping with our glimpses of Constance’s personality before her tragic end. On the other hand, the film’s title underscores the sense that the house is something monstrous, not human. In keeping with the haunted-house conventions the film trades on, the house is always a force of evil and malevolence. It embodies all of Constance’s violent fury, but nothing of the tragic, pitiable person that we glimpse (too briefly) in life, or of the love and peace that we see in her spirit in the end.
While it’s possible to interpret the film either way, the straightforward reading is that when Constance fell into the wet cement, she died, ending her brief marriage. The house, like the bride in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, may think of itself as married to the living man, but it is not; marriage lasts only until death — not a principle directly affirmed in Monster House, as it is in Corpse Bride, but so universally known in our culture that it is not unreasonable to assume it unless it is denied. On this reading, Nebbercracker is an unhappy man whose whole life has been overshadowed by a tragedy he can’t put behind him, a tyrannical memory that will not let him go — until the very end.
Happily, no such difficulties or ambiguities affect Up, a far more humane and richly textured film that provides the house-household symbolism with its most lyrical and evocative expression to date. The enormous appeal of Pete Docter’s film begins with its solid foundation, an eloquent, economical prologue that is among the most arresting tributes to lifelong love that I have ever seen in any film, let alone a cartoon. In this prologue we meet Carl and Ellie, childhood sweethearts who marry and grow old together. In a few minutes we glimpse a lifetime of joys and disappointments, hopes and heartbreak (has any other American cartoon confronted miscarriage and inability to have children?), and finally Carl’s grief and loneliness as Ellie dies.
Unlike Nebbercracker, who spent a lifetime in the shadow of love lost in a gruesome and violent way, Carl looks back on a long and happy life together with a love now lost to natural death. In fact, in some respects Carl’s grief is less analogous to Nebbercracker’s terrible burden than is the twisted obsession the other crotchety old man in Up, who serves as a counterpoint to Carl: Carl’s childhood hero, explorer extraordinaire Charles Muntz, who has spent bitter decades in self-imposed exile from human society, fanatically devoted to the object of his obsession.
Carl lives alone in the little bungalow where he and Ellie met as children, and in which they spent their whole lives together. The bungalow represents their shared life, and also Ellie herself, in a much more wholesome way than Nebbercracker’s house represents Constance — at least, it is wholesome for Carl at first. Everything about the bungalow speaks to him of Ellie; all his routines remind him of her presence. Even going to get the mail, Ellie meets him at the mailbox where they both left painted handprints, and he ritually puts his hand to it, as if reverencing an icon or a relic of a saint.
Meanwhile, the world goes on around Carl, leaving him behind, literally overshadowing the house and the memories it represents. An enormous construction site has swallowed the neighborhood around his property, and developers crouch at the gate, ready to pounce. Against this changing world, the bungalow — his past life with Ellie and his memories — is Carl’s refuge, his solace, his hiding place.
Then comes a moment of crisis, and Carl will no longer be able to stay where he is. At that critical moment, he makes the first madly precipitous choice of his life: He will flee to South America, keeping an old promise to Ellie — and he will bring the bungalow with him, using the lifting power of a million brightly colored helium balloons.
In this crisis Carl’s house becomes something more than refuge and solace. It is now his escape, his freedom. Memory, nostalgia, and attachment buoy him up, elevating him above an intolerable situation. At the same time, Carl is not entirely in control. The flying house is sucked into a tempest, whipped and whirled about like Dorothy’s house in the cyclone, a hint that Carl is on a journey of discovery.
Arriving in South America, Carl labors on foot to tow the floating bungalow to the very spot (Paradise Falls) where he and Ellie dreamed of living. At this point, almost imperceptibly, the house begins to become something else: a responsibility, something Carl must attend to for the sake of honoring Ellie.
As time goes by, the balloons slowly lose their buoyancy. The house no longer floats high above Carl’s head, but drifts ponderously along in his wake, scant feet off the ground. The house is becoming a burden — a torpid, vaguely ridiculous dead weight slowly losing any uplifting purpose in Carl’s life; something he merely feels obliged to drag laboriously around everywhere he goes.
The house even becomes a liability. At a critical moment Carl lets down Russell the Wilderness Explorer because of a threat to the house — and later when Russell angrily goes off on his own, Carl is unable to follow him, trapped by the house which the sagging balloons can no longer lift. The bungalow now threatens to cost Carl his relationship with Russell, who has become the one vital link in his life.
At this point, like Nebbercracker’s house, the bungalow has started to become a trap — even a deathtrap. It is something that Carl must cut loose, let go. Perhaps not all at once — it may be enough, at first, to lighten the load drastically, to heave overboard everything that isn’t nailed down. The old box may even bear him aloft once more, in its lightened state. But the time is fast approaching when Carl will have to choose, once and for all, between the yesterday of the bungalow and the today of Russell.
When the time comes, Carl makes the right call: he literally cuts the cord with the past, and life goes on. And then, a paradoxical miracle. The bungalow drifts away into the mists — only to come to rest, unknown to Carl, on the very spot where he and Ellie had always wanted their home to be. Only when Carl lets his life with Ellie go does it finally take its true place in the whole drama of his story. It’s a perfect denouement. The whole story-arc of the bungalow is an astoundingly fluid metaphor for a whole range of stages of grief and healing: bereavement, grief, withdrawal, loyalty to departed loved ones, malaise and the threat of morbidity, and finally acceptance and something like peace.
House and Home
In each of the four films considered here, houses are depicted as the shell of a shared life that has already passed away: an architectural after-image of a family and a marriage that is no more. How to respond to or cope with the ending of a marriage, either in death or divorce, is a crucial concern in each of these films.
Grief, anger, and acceptance are all part of the picture — but they are also all double-edged. Anger can be displaced, as Zathura’s Walter blames Danny for the parents’ divorce, and as Spiderwick’s Jared blames the mother for the father’s departure. But where the knife of Jared’s anger ultimately finds its true object, Zathura brushes the question aside. Where Jared accepts the bitter truth that his father’s actions have torn apart their family, and their mother is not to blame, Walter is only asked to accept the reality of the postmarital situation, with no acknowledgement that one or both of his parents has broken faith both with the other and with their children.
As the dust slowly settles on these broken homes, the time may come for another sort of acceptance. Jared’s father probably isn’t out of his children’s lives forever. The day may or may not come when he recognizes and acknowledges the wrong he has done to his children, and perhaps even asks for forgiveness. One way or another, the children of broken homes will eventually be faced with a choice between clinging to bitterness and resentment — to Jared’s knife, stabbing at his shadow-father — or forgiving a betrayal, whether acknowledged and repented of or not. First, though, the children must be aware that there is something to forgive: that they have been wronged. Acceptance may forgive wrongs; it must not paper over the wrong by saying, “There’s nothing to forgive.”
Even when a household is broken by death rather than divorce, acceptance must not come too cheaply or easily. Carl in Up should not go home on the day of Ellie’s death, sign over the bungalow to the developers, pitch all their possessions into a dumpster, and head whistling off to the Shady Oaks senior home. On the other hand, Monster House’s Nebbercracker has perhaps spent his entire life (at least on the interpretive lines suggested by the analogy of Up and the other films) in a paralyzing grief, in the death-grip of a tragedy that he could not let go. There is a time for grief, and a time for letting go.
In the long run, every house that is a home eventually becomes what the houses in these films are: a memorial to a household that is no more. Brokenness comes to every household — broken hearts if not broken homes — and everyone who lives long enough eventually finds himself in a situation not unlike that of the characters in one or another of these films. Dorothy’s words go deeper and truer than she realized: indeed there is no place like home — in the long run, not even home itself. In this world, as some of these films seem at times aware, we have no lasting home, and even the happiest homes, even the most loving marriages, at even their most heavenly moments, are at best shadows pointing to a homeland that is elsewhere.