2006: Guillermo del Toro
Rated R: 119 minutes
Vault Rating: 8.5
There are monsters afoot in the world and in the imagination. There are saints and devils, heroes and heroines, the charmed, the defiled and the innocent. The sorcery is in telling them apart.
Into this chaotic, dark world steps a luminous girl, her troubled mother and her as yet unborn brother.
Set in the war torn Spain of 1944, director Guillermo del Toro has assembled a powerful array of symbols and set them spinning in an utterly original, grim, fairy tale full of wicked and wondrous visions. He weaves a spell whisking you into childhood, where other worlds really do exist.
Our expectant mother is Carmen Vidal (Ariadna Gil) and her luminous daughter is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who we find traveling to a remote area of Spain where the child can be born in the presence of his father. Said father, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), leads fascist troops against the resistance in the mountainous reaches of occupied Spain.
Carmen instructs Ofelia to refer to Captain Vidal as father.
“It’s only a word,” she says, but it is a word that Ofelia cannot utter. Captain Vidal is not her one true father.
The mill where they take up residence is a strange place. Almost a recasting of the retreat in “The Shining,” it would be idyllic, but is full of the soldiers and servants and is isolated in a shroud of fear.
When Ofelia is led into a nearby labyrinth, she has breached a new world and becomes the nexus between the two dark worlds and a ray of hope in both.
The fantasy world that del Toro unleashes is refreshingly wild and not a little scary, reflecting the perilous steps of our protagonist as she goes between.
In the labyrinth, Ofelia is entreated by a mysterious faun to perform a trinity of dark tasks, the first two of which seem to effect healing. Now, this faun will not bring to your mind the cuddly and nice “Tumness” of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” This faun is far more edgy and almost Aztec in design, which causes uncertainty as to his secret motives and plans. It does become clear, though, that the faun is using the girl, being powerless himself to effect his magics in the mortal world.
Through it all, the brave child follows her heart to a powerful resolution.
Seldom do films in our present day world of computer graphics, where anything is possible, bring this much imagination to the screen. In fact, I doubt very much that many of the visuals here are CGI creations to begin with. On a scale of sheer imagination, I can only liken this film to some of the work by the renowned animator, Hayao Miyazaki.
That the story is rich and strangely beautiful, haunting and tense and dares to have a point places it clearly among the best, if not THE best, films of the year.
Now to the point about it being a Spanish language film. Yes, you have to quit being lazy and read subtitles. I come from a forgotten world where reading was a good thing. And if you visit the Video Vault often enough, you will find that some of the best films in the world come from places where they don’t speak English. You cheat only yourself by avoiding subtitled films. If you have never seen the lovely and warm-hearted “Amelie,” or the moving “Jean de Florette” (French), or the great latin entries, “Y Tu Mama, Tambien,” “Volver,” and “Amores Perros, or the recent Canadian / Indian “Water,” you are missing out on untold riches. Almost all of these are available today at your local video stop. No excuses, folks. Start with “Amelie” if you like a charming story about sex. Start with “Pan’s Labyrinth” if you like your films a little stranger and a little darker.
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Or how about if you like your films a little stupider? I want to tell you all that, having seen “Shrek the Third” I can safely pronounce the Shrek franchise dead. It isn’t funny and I just could not bear the slap-dash application of badly spliced snippets of pop songs to BE the humor rather than to SUPPORT the humor. This is junk food for your kids.
I know a way that DreamWorks can save a little face here. How about turning the cast of Shrek into a series of short films? Like the cast of Bugs Bunny in the heyday of animation, Shrek features lots of viable characters who could be featured in animated shorts of their own and they could continue almost forever. Let’s have a short featuring Fiona having to deal with her ogre triplets while Shrek is off fishing in the swamp with Donkey. Puss-N-Boots could be the new, amorous, Pepe le Pew! How about a short of Snow White and the 7 Dwarves 20 years later?
C’mon, DreamWorks, put a little imagination into it why don’t ‘cha? Bring back the art of cartoon shorts and quit milking us with feature film garbage.
Until next time, when I find out if my lower lumbar will ever fall back into line… Enjoy!