A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 533 – Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth – August 15th, 2011

Unlike the movie from last night, this is a movie I’d been meaning to see for a long time. It was sort of a victim of overhype, but in the sense that I’d heard such good things about it and I was petrified that it wouldn’t live up to what I was expecting. I wanted it to be magical and unreal and everything that The Brothers Grimm failed at. I wanted a new fairytale I’d never read or seen before and I wanted it to feel right. And I was so worried that something about it would ring false to me. That something other people were able to accept or overlook would jump out at me and ruin it all and I didn’t want that. So I didn’t watch it.

Thankfully, this movie was everything I wanted it to be, including incredibly dark and cruel. Which fits. Have you read any of the original Grimm stories? Take a look at The Juniper Tree for a good example. These were stories meant as lessons and cautionary tales. They weren’t padded at the corners with comic relief and lessened consequences like the Disney versions. People do horrible things to other people in the old stories. Parents hurt their children and people die hideous deaths. Gruesome things happen. And I should have known that Guillermo del Toro would get the tone right. He’s clearly well versed in the feel and mood of folklore like this.

The story has all the hallmarks of a classic fairytale: A young girl off in an unfamiliar place, a sick parent and a cruel step-parent, the promise of a better life and a quest to obtain it. But it’s all set in a very real time and place, a few years after the Spanish Civil War, in the woods where rebels are still fighting and the military has set up a presence at an old mill to try and weed them out. Ofelia and her mother arrive to stay with Ofelia’s new step-father, the sadistic Captain Vidal. Her mother is heavily pregnant and the pregnancy is going poorly. Ofelia worries about her mother, refuses to accept Vidal as her new father and yearns for something more. And she is rewarded for her imagination with the appearance of a fairy who leads her to a labyrinth in the woods. A labyrinth with a strange creature inside who tells her of another world where she is a princess, lost long ago. She’s given a quest to complete three tasks to reopen the other world and of course she accepts the challenge.

Now, in older fairytales, it’s simply accepted that there’s magic in the world and that it can be dangerous but also helpful if used right. That seems to be par for the course. In this story, however, the people around Ofelia have plenty to worry about without magic and believe that she simply has an active imagination and lets it get the better of her at times. She ruins a new party dress by climbing into a hole in a treestump and getting all muddy. She disappears when she should be somewhere important. She uses folk remedies to try and help her mother. And almost all of the adults around Ofelia are dismissive at best and downright cruel at worst. Ofelia has legitimate fears of losing her mother, of what her step-father is capable of, of her new baby brother dying. And not only are the majority of the adults around her dismissive of what they claim is her imagination, but they dismiss her fears. They dismiss her.

Now, it would be incredibly easy to write off the fantasy aspect of the movie as being all in Ofelia’s head. It’s a fairly easy leap to make from fantasy to coping mechanism. And that’s all well and good. It works on that level just fine and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to view the movie in that light. Personally, however, I prefer to believe that it’s a melding of the two. That when Ofelia most needed some magic in her life to cope with the horrible events unfolding around her, the magic in the world responded. It could be argued either way, and I can see how one might lean towards the fantasy being imaginary, given that it doesn’t end up saving Ofelia’s mother and it doesn’t fix everything right from the start, but that’s just not how these stories work. There are always tasks to be undertaken and prices to be paid and monsters to defeat. If you don’t take the time to prove your worth, then you haven’t earned the help you’re being offered.

Likewise, I choose to take the ending as it’s presented to me. In a fairytale, with a magical land under the ground, there’s no reason why Ofelia couldn’t be transported there. She’s repaid for the work she did and the people left behind in the regular world don’t need to know what’s happened. It suits a story of war for there to have been such a loss. As painful as the situation must be for Ofelia’s one stalwart supporter, the amazing Mercedes, she’s not one to shy away from painful situations. The combination of magic and non-magic worlds hinged on Ofelia’s presence, so her departure leaves Mercedes to deal with the real world problems she needs to focus on. I like that there’s a separation there. That the worlds converge for the space of the story and then separate again.

And let me take a moment to praise the character of Mercedes, who is one of the strongest women I’ve seen in a movie in a while. She is fantastic and powerful and sympathetic and amazingly well presented. I loved everything about her. She is, as an adult, dealing with difficult situations that Ofelia, as a child, is not ready to handle. The two of them together are fantastically well written characters and I loved seeing them in the same movie, reflecting powerful female characters at two stages of life.

The other thing I’d like to praise, which makes the movie complete, is the visual style. It is distinctly Guillermo del Toro’s style, and that is gorgeously perfect for a story like this. I’m sure if I could spend more time on this and more time on the movie itself that I would see more and more and more details that connect back to the story itself and its meanings. It’s a rich world in both aspects, with the real world no less deep than the fantasy world, just with a different look. If the visuals didn’t work the movie would still be a wonderfully told story with fantastic characters and acting, but it would feel as if it had been cheated of much of its depth had it not looked like it does. Fortunately, the movie has everything I could have asked for and everything I hoped it would and I was very much not disappointed.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pan’s Labyrinth

August 15, 2011

Pan’s Labyrinth

More than a year ago, when Amanda and I first embarked on this movie a day project, we randomly chose a movie from our stacks and that movie was Hellboy 2. (Because we wanted to watch movies in order we instead watched Hellboy first of course.) It was through those two beautiful movies that I first discovered the work of Guillarmo Del Toro, and from the first time I saw Hellboy in the theater I was a dedicated fan of his vision. (I had seen Mimic and Blade II, but I didn’t really begin to pay attention to his name until I saw Hellboy.) This movie is probably the most purely Del Toro one we own – it shows just what kind of film he can create if allowed to do something completely original and completely in his own way. The result is absolutely one of the most beautiful movies we own.

This movie has been pitched as a fairy tale for adults. I have to admit that I’m somewhat resentful that such a film should be so very rare. Yes, it is a beautiful fairy tale with fantasy creatures, a fairy princess who has been re-born as a human, magic and fairy tale tasks. Yes, it also contains scenes of violence, blood, torture and oppression which are wholly inappropriate for children. In my mind however there is no rule which states that a fantasy film has to be appropriate for a young audience. Adults need fantasy too, perhaps even more so than children.

What Del Toro has done here is wrap a young girl’s fantasy adventure up inside a stark tale of war in Spain during World War Two. Young Ofelia has come to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother to live with her wicked stepfather. He is a captain in the army tasked with quelling a local communist underground and he is petty, bureaucratic, violent, egotistical and thoroughly evil. Near the mill he is using for a base of operations there is an ancient labyrinth, and one day Ofelia is led by a fairy deep into the maze where she meets a decrepit old faun who greets her as the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld.

The faun tells her that she can re-gain her immortality and join her father in the underworld if she can complete three tasks before the next full moon. These are fairy tale tasks like retrieving a key from the belly of a toad which has polluted the roots of an ancient fig tree or recovering a dagger from the lair of a child-eating pale monster which is simultaneously emaciated and bloated. She also wants to find a way to help her mother, whose pregnancy is not going well and naturally she loathes her wicked step-father.

Meanwhile Captain Vidal has been clamping down on the local populace in an attempt to root out the rebels. There’s a vivid scene where he brutally murders an elderly hunter and his son because he thinks they might be in cahoots. He is becoming paranoid and desperate. Things are made worse by the fact that several of his trusted staff members are working against him, such as the kindly house-keeper who cares for Ofelia while her mother is ill and the local doctor. Vidal is absolutely the worst kind of petty tyrant and his only real concern is that Ofelia’s mother bear him a healthy son to carry on his line. Del Toro has him obsessed with his dead father’s cracked pocket watch and living in the mill surrounded by gears and cogs – he’s very much a man of the mechanical future.

That’s the kind of gorgeous, detailed visual feast that this movie is. Guillermo Del Toro has used the familiar tropes of fairy tales and given them vivid life. It’s like taking a trip into his dreams, or maybe into his nightmares. As with most authentic fairy tales there’s a darkness here. There’s blood and danger, and monsters. You can see Del Toro’s hand in everything here – it’s like his sketchbooks made real and it’s fantastic to behold.

Also fantastic to behold is Doug Jones both as the faun at the heart of the labyrinth and the sinister “pale man.” He’s such an expressive actor, able to communicate so much with an intricate wave of his hands. Even delivering his lines in unfamiliar Spanish he has a fantastic flair, it’s always a delight to see him at work.

After saying all that, however, I have to admit that I am slightly disappointed in this movie. It’s visually stunning, and it does a wonderful job of giving life to fairy tales, but I’m not sure I like the way that the fantasy fits into the real world around it. Only Ofelia ever sees anything fantastic in this movie. Everybody else is trapped in a nightmare world of violence and death. The conclusion of the movie is left very much open for interpretation but I can’t help feeling that the fantasy in the movie is more of an escape for Ofelia and not something that really makes a difference in her life or changes her circumstances. Does she learn anything or gain any strength from her adventures? I like to believe that fantasy and magic are there to improve our lives and act to make us better people, not just to offer a refuge.

That is a small quibble and a mater of interpretation more than anything else, though. This is a powerful, beautiful, magical movie, and an absolute masterpiece. It makes me sad that Guillermo seems to have concentrated more of his energies on producing of late and hasn’t directed a movie since Hellboy II. I love visiting his sad, dark, fantastic worlds and long for another chance to do so.

August 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment