The Bizarre Worlds Of Guillermo del Toro

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I’m always wary of calling any single actor/director/writer the ‘best’ anything. There’s always room for opinion, as any film blogger knows. To roll out a ‘best’ appellation is pretty much guaranteed to bring the fury of the film-going public down upon my hapless head. So perhaps claiming that Guillermo del Toro is the best director working in Hollywood today is a little much … but he’s certainly ONE of the best.

Pacific Rim might be one of the testing grounds for this opinion. Granted that del Toro has not had great box office luck with his big budget films. Granted also that the only reason I’m interested in seeing a movie about robots fighting aliens is solely because of his name under ‘director.’ I trust Guillermo del Toro. With the exception of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, he has never let me down as a producer, a writer or a director.

What makes Guillermo del Toro’s work so compelling, so beloved of fanboys and fangirls? What is so damn special about this director, among so many great ones? This is a man with only a few directing credits to his name, far more as a writer or executive producer, yet his stamp appears on so many films today that he’s become an undoubted influence on the way filmmaking is being shaped. Why does his cult following matter? And why will his films continue to matter in years to come?

I’ll tell you why.

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Making Fantasies of Reality

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The importance of Guillermo del Toro’s work goes far deeper than whether or not he makes a mint at the box office – which, by and large, he does not.  More’s the pity. His films address with complexity and intelligence the supernatural world, proposing a dialectic between fantasy and reality and a symbiotic relationship in which one world affects the other.  Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s BackboneCronos, the Hellboy franchise, and Blade II, all address the notion of a magical world existing in tandem with our reality.

Del Toro’s films presuppose that what we see on the surface of the world is not all there is – that the supernatural not only exists, but affects us, lives with us and within us. His films challenge the very notion that there is a single reality. In this he’s working in a magical realist tradition – in its most simplistic form, the concept that the world of magic exists within the so-called ‘real world’ - very much in keeping with Southern American and Spanish roots.

The interplay between fantasy and reality is most sharply delineated in Pan’s Labyrinth. Set following the Spanish Civil War at the rise of Franco’s Spain, the film is about a young girl Ofelia, her fascist stepfather, a Captain, and her ill mother.  Ofelia eventually uncovers a fantasy world buried in her backyard – guided by a Faun, she must undertake tasks in order to save her mother, her little brother and restore herself to her ‘rightful place’ as Princess Moanna of the underworld.

Pan’s Labyrinth provides fantastical explanations for the most mundane events. One of Ofelia’s tasks is to retrieve a dagger from the ‘Pale Man’, who lives within the walls of the house.  The notion that it is a child-eating monster who makes the creaking noises in a house late at night is both terrifying and beautifully in keeping with magical realist thematics.

The entire film is a fairytale – an interaction between the ‘real’ world of totalitarian violence represented by the belligerent Captain, and the equally dangerous magical world of the trickster Faun. Occurrences within the real world are paralleled in the magical world – as the violence between the rebels and the Captain increases, so too is the magical world disrupted. Ofelia’s tasks becoming more dangerous, her failure more costly, and the manipulation of the Faun more apparent. The danger of trusting authority, Ofelia’s rebellion against both the rules of magic and the rules of reality, and her final triumph, create a complicated interplay of fantasy and reality in which what is ‘real’ becomes a non-issue – it’s all real.

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Innocence vs. Experience

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Children in films, as in literature, often occupy the ‘innocent but spunky’ position. They can be overzealous, annoying, little adults that are either smarter than their elders, or carbon copies of them. To do children well in a serious (read: non-kiddie) film has been a challenge for filmmakers. In many of his films, Guillermo del Toro’s project is the exposure of the childish world of make-believe as a real and emotionally complex and disturbing mirror image of the adult world.

In films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, the children must cope with an adult world they do not understand. But they do understand danger and violence – faced with the depradations of fascism and war, they engage in complex games, interacting with universes at once real and imaginary. Children are more capable of relating to the magical, spiritual and supernatural worlds, recognizing the wonder of life but also the violence of it. As del Toro blurs the line between fantasy and reality, so too does he combine the experience of the children with the belligerent violence and dangers of the adult world.

Guillermo del Toro’s children protagonists (and antagonists) are far from mere symbols or products of the adult world. They are fully fledged characters, played by excellent child actors. While his use of child actors has declined somewhat in recent years, a mere look back at The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and the films he wrote or produced including The Orphanage and Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, bears out how attached his films are to representing the underrepresented.  The children are not smarter, but wiser than the adults – affected by the adult world, they nonetheless question it, play with it, try to manipulate it in order to better understand their fates.  His films draw out what it means to be a child faced with dreadful, frightening circumstances – war, fascism, disease, the death of loved ones, the cruelty of bullies etc.

The childish world is a mirror of the adult world, reflecting it back in stark and often brutal colors.  In The Devil’s Backbone, mistrust piles upon mistrust, as the besieged wartime orphanage parallels the paranoiac world without.  A murdered child becomes a vengeful spirit, the parallel to a nation that has been corrupted, its innocence sacrificed to a world of bullies.  The child who pushes another into a well becomes the fascist who wants to rule the nation.

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Genre-Bending Ghosts and Goblins

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Guillermo del Toro is not, and will likely never be, an art house filmmaker. Nor, for that matter, does he make ‘serious’ dramas like Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard. Pan’s Labyrinth is as close as he’s ever likely to come to the sort of fare that plays well the Oscars. Del Toro is unapologetically a genre filmmaker, working primarily in horror, fantasy and graphic novel styles. He deals with vampires and demons, faeries and trolls, fauns, labyrinths, ghosts, spectres and ancient curses. His is a world of haunted houses, aliens from outer space, Lovecraftian mythologies and Elder Gods.

In many ways it’s the rather malleable nature of genre that gives del Toro his greatest freedom, and what makes his films so very remarkable to watch. While we can attempt to label Pan’s Labyrinth as a fable, Hellboy as a superhero film, or Cronos as horror, all transcend the common generic distinctions that as critics and viewers we attempt to put on them.  Hellboy is also a romance, Pan’s Labyrinth is a wartime drama, Cronos a mystery. They make use of their genres while also transcending them, operating via new rules and in new (but recognizable) paradigms.

Rather than creating generic superheroes or villains, del Toro’s ghosts and goblins act according to their natures. Evil in his films is often a human invention, while the ghosts are remnants of human anger or betrayal. The magical faeries and other world creatures behave according to their natural whims. The tooth fairies of Hellboy II are not evil creatures – they are creatures consuming because it is in their nature to consume. The villainous elven prince is no villain – he’s defending his world against the depredations of the ours. It is humans that create the stamp of good and evil, humans that delineate the world in black and white. The magical world, as well as the natural one, is far more complex. The viewer’s loyalties shift, are questioned and altered.

Transcending genre, del Toro shows us what true horror and true fantasy can look like. Complex, lyrical, beautiful, pathetic and very often terrifying, he gives us not a generic world we can recognize and dismiss, but an entire universe made of dream, nightmares, and fairytales.

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Special Effects

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Moving beyond the thematics of Guillermo del Toro’s films, we come to the more obvious charms: the special effects. One of my greatest disappointments in recent years was the moment when del Toro left The Hobbit, leaving behind some designs and script choices, but no cohesive vision. What could he have done with orcs, goblins and elves, not to mention Smaug? We shall never know.

Del Toro’s films are universally spectacular in their special effects. Even his lesser entries as a producer contain sparks of creature brilliance.  His films usually include a combination of make-up, puppetry, human performers – including the ever present Doug Jones, who played the Pale Man and the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, and Abe Sapien in the two Hellboy films – and CGI. Pacific Rim will be the first of del Toro’s films to be in 3D (post-converted) and certainly appears to be more CGI heavy even than the Hellboy films. But del Toro dedicates great time and energy to producing not just interesting characters but unique ones – creatures with personalities beneath the CGI and make-up, with physical characteristics we don’t see anywhere else. His films often remind me of the Jim Henson creatures in Labyrinth and the original Star Wars trilogy (back before George Lucas stuck in CGI Hutts) – strange and utterly unique in their own worlds.

In a time when CGI has become ubiquitous and spectacular things can be achieved via special effects, Guillermo del Toro has remained at the cutting edge. He rarely overuses technology, and always manages to make his characters come alive. These are not pixellated creatures made without a soul – they are the natural outcome of imagination.

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What can we expect from Guillermo del Toro in the future? Will Pacific Rim launch him into the A-list, or will he continue to have to fight for funding? Time and the box office will tell. But however we want to read Pacific Rim’s success or failure, there’s no doubt that Guillermo del Toro will remain one of the most unique directors working in Hollywood.  Few directors have been successful at melding the magical and the real, at creating creatures so singular in personality and appearance, at representing childhood experience and childhood fears on the big screen. In genre and out of it, Guillermo del Toro already has an impressive resume. We’ll just have to see what he comes up with next.

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