Friday, October 9, 2015

Birthday Take: Guillermo Del Toro in "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)

Scene from Pan's Labyrinth
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Guillermo Del Toro
Born: October 9 1964 (51 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Screenplay (nominated) for Pan's Labyrinth

The Take

It's tough for me to determine just how I feel about Guillermo Del Toro as of late. The truth is that I was very much burned by Pacific Rim. It is just a flat-out terrible movie that shows the director sacrificing what made him compelling and revolutionary. Even in the realm of big budgeted studio films, I found his work on the two Hellboy movies to vastly more compelling than most superhero films of the past decade. He is someone who understands comic books. But he also understands art. At least in the past, he is someone who incorporated practical effects and horror into something that is magnificent. He created a vision that is different from what most other people have been doing. It's kind of why I am cautious yet excited about Crimson Peak. However, it will be hard to fully write him off because of Pan's Labyrinth.

While he had transitioned into English language films by the time of the film's release, Pan's Labyrinth was his breakout film in a lot of ways. On top of being in Spanish, it's one of his most visually poetic films. It's a dark fairy tale that is as much about war as it is about the journey of a girl coming to terms with her placement. Even then, it's one of the most visually iconic films of the 00's, with various character models that have since been lampooned by pop culture. To understand the ingenuity of the film is to understand a creator whose vision is almost solely his own. Ripped from his sketchbook, a lot of the characters are immediately striking and memorable. It helps that the story around it is powerful.

Of course, Del Toro was always attracted to fantasy stories since his earliest films. As he wandered through Hollywood early in his career with Blade III, he was compelled by the supernatural forces that coincide with reality. However, what is strangest of all is that Pan's Labyrinth is the only where they coincide in a way that is personal and works on a deeper metaphorical level. You can cite Hellboy as a contradictory example, but it's more observant. In Pan's Labyrinth, it's more about exploring and becoming immersed into a culture that is different from our own. It helps that it is a world that is both haunting and beautiful in ways that studio films wouldn't allow. 

If I can be frank, Pan's Labyrinth isn't my favorite of his films. This isn't to discredit everything that the film does right. It's one that is more impressive because it managed to become a phenomenon whereas most international films don't. Its legacy is also indicative of its power. It may not be the fasted paced story out there, but it does bring together a deeper appreciation for something that isn't always prevalent in pop culture. There's a concern there that I don't feel his other films have. Comparing Pan's Labyrinth to Pacific Rim is unfair, especially since the latter feels soulless and unimaginative by comparison. I want to like Del Toro more, but Pacific Rim burned me, and I don't know if he's making films that he's passionate about, or films that he knows audiences will love. I want the director who cared.

I don't know if Del Toro will ever make a film with as much popularity as Pan's Labyrinth. It wasn't just his ode to fairy tales. It was his ode to craft and story as well. You will not forget the film once you have seen its vision. Its characters are unique, crass, but constructed in ways that are beautiful. There's nothing else like that and even with his other Spanish films, such as The Devil's Backbone, he brings a certain passion to the darkness that I wish he'd bring back to his later films. Will Crimson Peak do it? I don't know. However, we'll always have Pan's Labyrinth, which is both a compliment and an unfortunate aggrandizing of his later career. Here's hoping that he'll bounce back and not just pander to audiences eager for prestigious horror.

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