At about the halfway point in the first decade of the 21st Century, I’ve begun thinking about what the most noteworthy cinematic achievements of the decade are, and one thing stands out- fantasy is in, leaving in the dust drama, comedy, and all of the sub-genres those main genres can inhabit, save for one. I don’t have a complete Top 10 of the 2000s yet, and this trend is as clear as day. My hope is that it doesn’t disappear in the next four years, as it’s one of the reasons cinema feels so alive this decade, even if Hollywood is still capable of numbing us stupid with the predictable and trite.
The thing is, when most people think fantasy, they limit their thinking to the “Harry Potters,” the “Chronicles of Narnias,” the “Star Wars,” and the “Lord of the Rings” (don’t worry, that last one’s made the cut). But the genre is so much greater than big-budget spectacle and multi-million dollar effects, and so much richer thematically than simple good-vs.-evil…when it’s done right. And a wide variety of filmmakers- both in America and from other parts of the world- have gotten it right, the best of them deftly moving between a believable “real world” and palpable “fantasy world” to reveal the fundamental truths they’re exploring in their stories (though some- Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Ang Lee- have succeeded in this objective through works of pure fantasy). Off the top of my head, Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away,” and to a lesser extent, “Howl’s Moving Castle”), Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Science of Sleep”), and Darren Aronofsky (“The Fountain”) have made the strongest impression at this type of fantasy storytelling, which is hardly new (one of the most iconic of all children’s stories- “Peter Pan”- is based on this very principle, as are older fantasy films such as “Labyrinth” and “The Neverending Story,” which have loyal fans), yet doesn’t really get the respect it deserves in some circles.
Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” comes along at just the right time, and that it stands out in the crowd is a credit to its’ maker, who has crafted an affecting and haunting vision. (As a note, Terry Gilliam’s “Tideland”- personally, a most underrated effort- hit a lot of the same notes; that “Pan’s” surpasses it is quite an accomplishment). Mostly known in the U.S. as the director of “Hellboy” and “Blade II,” look for the Mexican director’s cult fanbase to grow, and for fans of those mainstream efforts to search out his lower-profile efforts. Of most note of those titles is “The Devil’s Backbone,” his memorable 2001 ghost story about a children’s school during the Spanish Civil War tormented by the sins of its’ past, and the closest precursor to “Labyrinth,” which rates with “Backbone” as required viewing and a personal best for del Toro. You can’t take your eyes off of either of them.
The most surprising aspect about “Labyrinth” is how little its’ fantastic aspects really seem to have to do with the central story, as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is brought to a remote post in the countryside with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) by Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a fascist and sadistic soldier whose brutality simmers in every glance and movement (Lopez triumphs at creating a lasting face of evil to this character- difficult to do with such a standard character type to work with). It’s not hard to see why Ofelia retreats into her fairy tales, which are more than welcome to have her when they begin to manifest themselves, as Ofelia begins to see insects turn into fairies and she is confronted by Pan, a faun who is the guardian of a nearby labyrinth. As the confrontations with Vidal and complications with her mother’s impending birth grow more difficult, the further Ofelia retreats into the labyrinth’s equally-dark universe, undergoing tasks put forth by Pan, who believes Ofelia to be a long-awaited princess, and receiving guidance in how to survive the very real dangers surrounding her (like I said, the fantastic only seem to be separate from the central story; del Toro makes each one intrigal to the other with subtle, superb screenwriting craft). Ofelia’s not alone in her trivails; Vidal’s housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), is fighting Vidal herself by aiding a band of guerillas who, in spite of the vicious retribution Vidal brings along them (his torture techniques are not backed away from by del Toro’s camera), continue to plot and plan and wait for the right moment to strike.
Del Toro is the third of Mexico’s “Three Amigos” to find an audience- and critical approval, not to mention Oscar’s attention (their three films combined for an impressive 16 nominations)- in the States this year, and these cinematic gringos (including “Babel’s” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu and “Children of Men’s” Alfonso Cauron) are three-for-three. Of the three, it’s not surprising really that del Toro seems to have found the largest audience with his film- now two weeks in the box-office Top 10- though it is kind of disappointing, as all three films are exemplary and bold works. Like I said, fantasy is in, and del Toro has made a rich one to get lost in, and a refreshing tonic to both the early-’07 doldrums and the usual group of awards-baiting dramas, no matter how mindlessly entertaining the former can be and how well-crafted the latter is. When people sniff out something different, well, let’s just say sometimes it gets the attention it deserves.
At this point, it’s almost a cliche for me to avoid going further into the story, but you’ll be glad I didn’t if you haven’t already seen del Toro’s grim fairy tale. I’ve already gone into a lot of the film’s details, but there are sequences of heartfelt emotion and suspense that shouldn’t be ruined in a review. Carrying the emotional arc of the story is Baquero, whose solemn face can’t mask the gleam of wonder in her eyes as she explores the fantasy world, the mournful terror which she lives with in the real world, and the courage she must find in the end to overcome the evil she faces in Vidal, and bring a level of harmony to both worlds she inhabits. If the 11 year-old Baquero appears detached, it’s by the nature of the character she plays, and the situation the story throws her into; Baquero carrys the film beautifully.
And del Toro supports her every step of the way through his strong storytelling and startling visuals, aided as well by a lovely and memorable score by Javier Navarrete. Production designer Eugenio Caballero and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro are both adept at creating a believable real world as well as a convincing- and engrossing- fantasy world (which uses makeup and computer effects to bring to life wonderous creatures like Pan and the eyeless Pale Man, both brought to life by “Hellboy” actor Doug Jones) that’s born out of real world artifacts, making it all the more credible. Given the nature of the film, it’s a bit surprising there isn’t more of the fantasy element in the story, but when one steps back to consider del Toro’s story, you see the focus del Toro shows as a screenwriter, making any criticism on that front moot. Personally, “Pan’s Labyrinth” didn’t reach the heights of dramatic and fantastic wonders as “Spirited Away”- the film that came to mind most during the film- but del Toro’s dark vision of how reality and fantasy lead a young girl on an unnerving quest of self-discovery is a one-of-a-kind experience.