The original Pacific Rim brought out my inner child with its gee-whiz spectacle of giant robots fighting giant monsters, and under the artistic vision of Guillermo del Toro. I was eager for a sequel, as was my inner child. Thanks to China, a sequel was granted, though del Toro left to go win Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars. The new director replacing del Toro, Steven S. DeKnight, came to fame on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spartacus, and Netflix’s Daredevil. DeKnight acquits himself well in a world of big-budgets and big worlds, and while Pacific Rim Uprising is definitely lesser than the original, it’s still a whole lot of fun. John Boyega (The Last Jedi) leads the way as the son of Idris Elba’s character. It’s been ten years since the events of the first film and humanity is considering replacing Jaeger pilots with more cost-efficient drones. Then a rogue Jaeger starts attacking the remnants of the fleet, and Boyega and a scrappy pre-teen girl have to team up with a bunch of other Jaeger recruits to save the day. Where the first Pacific Rim rode the wave carefully to find a middle ground between cheese and awe, this time the movie swerves far more into cheese. Stuff gets silly, but if you can’t abide a little silliness then what are you doing watching this movie? The mythology and world building deepen, building off the last film, and they even supply a motivation for the aliens. It does feel at times like a pilot for a TV series, Jaeger Academy, and oddly the plot seems to follow Independence Day 2, Iron Man 2, Ender’s Game, and then ends right back with Independence Day 2’s closing sales pitch for a sequel that was never destined to be. Boyega has a fine reserve of charm and much is asked of him since the remaining characters are pretty slight. The action takes place almost entirely in daylight, a positive change from the original. The monsters don’t appear until the final act, which is not a positive change. It’s fun, goofy, and entertaining in the way that Saturday morning cartoons of your youth were entertaining. Uprising probably won’t be saved by China this time, but if you’re a fan of the first I have to think you’ll still enjoy the sequel.
Nate’s Grade: B-
You haven’t seen a romance like director Guillermo del Toro’s latest monster mash (monster smash?), The Shape of Water. del Toro, an aficionado of cinematic creepy crawlies, has swerved from big-budget studio fare into a smaller, stranger period romance between a woman and an amphibious creature who already arrives pre-lubricated (I apologize already for that joke). I was compelled to watch The Shape of Water twice to better formulate my thoughts, mostly because I was not expecting the movie to be so enthusiastically whimsical, adult, and romantic, and the best beauty and the beast tale of this year.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely mute woman working on the cleaning staff at a classified government laboratory. Her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man. Her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is supportive but thinks they should mind their own business. An Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) from the Amazon is confined to a cell and repeatedly beaten by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the vile head of security at the station. They believe the creature’s ability to breathe underwater and on land will be the key to winning the space race. The scientist in charge, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is secretly a Russian spy, though his allegiances are more to the fragile creature than any country. Elisa teaches the creature sign language, the joys of hard boiled eggs, and lots of cheery music. She also falls in love with the creature and grows determined to save the Amphibian Man by breaking him loose.
From the get go, del Toro drops us into a world that is not our own, as he’s so skilled at doing. This version of 1960s Baltimore feels as though it’s the twentieth century equivalent of a fairy tale village, and our monster is also the princess in need of rescue. Our heroine has a strange scar that foreshadows her place of belonging. The entire film bristles with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there isn’t anything explicitly magical. The supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance, as they would be in any storybook legend of old. When Elisa discovers the Amphibian Man in his tank, it’s literally at the ten-minute mark or even earlier, and she is unfazed. She immediately accepts the existence of this scaly mere-man, establishes a line of communication, and befriends the creature. It’s as if del Toro is trying to prime the audience for what’s to come and hoping to skip over the intermediate waiting period of incredulity. For del Toro, the real fun is once the characters connect, and belaboring that necessary connection is not in the audience’s best interests or time.
The movie glides by on effusive outpouring of charm, given such vibrant, sweeping life thanks to del Toro’s repertoire of pop-culture influences and his passionate love of cinema. The Shape of Water feels like del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) took one of the old Universal horror B-movies and decided to make it into one of the most personal, delightful, and curious filmgoing experiences of the year. It’s film as escape for society’s outsiders. The sense of whimsy is ever-present without being overpowering or diluting the drama. It never feels quirky for its own sake of satisfaction. You’ll recognize several of del Toro’s artistic references, the re-purposing of cultural artifacts, but the magic suffused within every frame is thanks to del Toro and his team of filmmaking artists. If Amelie was going to fall in love with a sea creature, it might look something like this The Shape of Water.
The movie is also surprisingly, refreshingly adult in its depiction of human beings. Again the opening minutes set a standard of what to expect. We get a sense of Elisa’s daily routine before leaving for work, and one crucial component involves furious masturbation in her bathtub (set to an egg timer for sport?). This is a far more sensual movie than I was ever anticipating. There are multiple sequences of Hawkins disrobed and offering herself to the Amphibian Man. We never see any underwater action but we do hear about some of the mechanics of how the coupling is even remotely possible physically (“Never trust a man,” Zelda chuckles upon hearing those dirty details). It’s not all sexy time indulgences. There’s a sharp undercurrent of very real and very upsetting violence, typified by Strickland’s ruthless determination to break the creature. He’s a Bible-thumping sadist generally dismissive of those he finds different and lesser and yet he’s drawn to Elisa. Why is that? Because she’s a diminutive woman who cannot talk, and this sexually excites him like nothing else. He even comes on to her, thinking his interest is a form of masculine charity. There are some shocking moments of very real violence and its lingering effects. Strickland’s on-the-job injury becomes a metaphorical moral gauge for the putrid character’s state of being. The Shape of Water is a movie that does not blunt anything, whether it’s the sexuality or violence of its story (beware pet lovers: this is the second 2017 entry where an amphibian being hidden from the government eats somebody’s house cat). This is a fable for adults, a grimy Grimm’s tale with a sprinkle of Old Hollywood sparkle.
The Shape of Water is also a deeply romantic and earnest love story about two outsiders finding a connection in the most unlikely of places. Engineering a story that pushes two oddball characters together, each finally finding a kindred spirit, is an easy recipe for a satisfying conclusion; however, their romantic connection has to feel rightly earned. If we don’t believe the characters have fallen for one another, that this potential relationship elevates their existence, that the colors of the world seem brighter when around this person, then it doesn’t work. You have to buy the love story and it must be earned. Amazingly, del Toro is able to craft a love story with a mute woman and an Amphibian Man that checks most of the boxes of Hollywood romantic escapism. Elisa has an openhearted way of looking at the world, and her acceptance provides her with a bravery few others have. The creature presents somebody who views her not as a woman with a disability, as something lesser, but as something whole and wholly fulfilling. Everyone wants to be truly seen by someone for who they are rather than what they’re not.
While del Toro is supremely skillful at making Elisa’s romantic yearnings felt, there is one inherent weakness in this girl-meets-fish dude tale of love. The Amphibian Man isn’t really much of a character and far more of a symbol to the other characters. To Elisa, he’s her hope. To Giles, he’s a wild animal. To Strickland, he’s a defiant challenge to be tamed. To Zelda, he’s the questionable new boyfriend for her pal. To Hoffstetler, he’s a beautiful creature. To the U.S. government, he’s a potential scientific breakthrough. To the Soviets, he’s a liability and a potential future weapon. We’re told the indigenous people of the Amazon worshiped the Amphibian Man as a god but ultimately he remains a cipher others project onto. The love story feels a little too one-sided from an audience investment perspective. Still, the romance works and that fact alone is incredible considering the unique pairing.
Hawkins (Maudie) is the beating heart of the movie and delivers a wonderfully expressive portrait of a woman finding her voice, so to speak. She’s relatively upbeat and that fits the whimsical tone of the picture. Hawkins plays a woman excited by the possibilities of the world. She reminded me of Bjork’s tragic heroine from 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, a woman who saw the extraordinary in ordinary life, who could perceive a symphony of music just on the outer edges of everyone else’s hearing. Going completely wordless for the movie, save for one very memorable fantasy sequence, requires a lot of daunting physical acting from Hawkins, and she’s more than up to the task. I guarantee a scene where she tearfully forces Giles to say out loud her signing will be her Oscar nomination clip.
When we talk about the weird and wild promise of cinema, it takes a controlled, assured vision and precise execution to bring together the dispirit elements and allow them to coalesce into something that feels like a satisfying, mesmerizing whole. The Shape of Water is del Toro’s gooey love letter to monster movies while stepping outside of homage and into the realm of something daring and different. I could talk about the Busby Berkley musical number as declaration of love, or that the story is told from socially marginalized voices finding an affinity together, or the small character moments that give generous life to supporting figures like Zelda and Hoffstetler, or that it leaves implied stories to be chewed over for extra richness like Giles likely being outed at his work to the dismay of his closeted superior, or the perfect casting for secondary antagonists, or the exquisite cinematography that seems to utilize every shade of green the human eye is capable of seeing, or the stunning production design, or the sweetly eccentric whistling musical score by Alexadre Desplat, or the grace of Doug Jones’ performance in the amphibian suit, or just how funny this movie can be, even the sadistic villain. I could talk about all that stuff but I’ll simply condense it all to a plea to give The Shape of Water a chance. It’s rare to see a storytelling vision this precise that’s also executed at such a high degree of difficulty. In other hands, this could have been an unholy mess. With del Toro, it’s a lovely mess.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Pacific Rim is director Guillermo del Toro’s (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) giddy ode to the great monster movies of his youth, and if you’re fond of men in suits and large-scale cardboard destruction, then this movie is definitely for you. The word “awesome” seems too inadequate to describe the rock ‘em sock ‘em action of this picture. This is likely the most realistic and serious this concept will ever be realized, with a gargantuan budget and some top-notch special effects. del Toro, already something of a god in fanboy circles, will get his chiseled bust alongside Joss Whedon. Pacific Rim is a transporting blockbuster that doesn’t pull its punches, at least when it’s dealing with robots fighting monsters. If this is why del Toro dropped out of directing The Hobbit then I think it’s a good trade off.
In the near future, a rift opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that opens a gateway to another dimension. Through this portal, giant horrifying monsters the size of skyscrapers appear to wreck havoc on coastal cities. The monsters, known as kaiju, take a whole lot of work to go down. “To battle monsters, we had to make monsters, “ say a character in the prologue. The world unifies and responds with a program where two people pilot giant mechanical robots known as jaegers (yes college kids, you read that right). These pilots are psychically linked via a process known as the Drift; they work in tandem, sharing one mind. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) is a former jeager pilot recovering from the loss of his co-pilot/older brother in battle. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) recruits him back to the final days of the jaeger program, a defense that has fallen out of favor with world leaders once the kaiju started winning again. Stationed in Hong Kong, Raleigh is looking for a new co-pilot and by all accounts it seems Pentecost’s diminutive assistant, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), is the best candidate, though Pentecost won’t allow it. Add some wacky scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman) and an underground monster parts trader (Ron Perlman). The last days of the beleaguered jaeger program are all that stand between mankind and annihilation from giant beasts.
It’s undeniable how well Pacific Rim taps into your inner ten-year-old, the kid who crashed his toys together imagining larger-than-life battles. Truthfully, if I were ten years old, I’d likely declare Pacific Rim the greatest movie of all time, that is, until I saw one with boobs in it. Conceptually, this feels like just about every anime brought to life, and fans of anime, as well as monster movies in general, should be in heaven. It’s so much fun to watch but it also doesn’t get lost in the cacophony of special effects like many modern blockbusters. del Toro has a wonderful way of showcasing his action without losing track of the scale or the destruction. Unlike Man of Steel, we have city-wide devastation that feels like devastation. Giant monsters are a state of life for the world and so is the day-to-day anxiety that one’s coastal existence is about to be in ruins. The movie doesn’t get bogged down in post-9/11 solemnity, but at the same time I appreciated that del Toro makes his violence feel significant and the loss feel real.
The action onscreen is often exciting and screenwriter Travis Beacham (Iron Man 3) employs a nice system of escalating the stakes by applying a category system to the kaiju, rating them on a 1-5 scale. It provides a natural progression of opponents. Plus, besides the inherent excitement with the premise, Beacham and del Toro drop us into the middle of this story, years after the jaegers have fallen out of favor as a means of defense, thus providing another hook – underdogs. Our heroes don’t just control giant fighting robots, they are also underdogs and have to prove their mettle to dismissive authority figures. I was hooked.
del Toro has always been a man who can create living, breathing worlds that you just want to explore, and Pacific Rim is the same. I loved immersing myself in the minutia of this world, learning the different fighting techniques of the robot designs, the cultures that harvest the kaiju bodies (there are monster groupies as well), the rock-star status of the jaeger pilots, and most of all, the Drift. Psychically linking the pilots is an ingenious way to add to the emotional investment of what are otherwise fairly clichéd character types. They have to be in synch mentally, which requires a whole other level of trust and connection. The tragic back-story of Raleigh is given even more weight knowing that not only was he witness to his brother getting eaten alive by a giant scary monster, he was psychically linked and felt his brother’s overwhelming fear and pain. That would definitely shake me. The Drift also provides a unique way to include back-story without feeling like forced exposition. Seeing Mako’s horrifying childhood survival account is quite affecting, but it works even better knowing this is also a chance for Raleigh to understand and bond with her. That sequence, Mako as a child, is stunning, staying with her pint-sized perspective as she tries to outrun a ferocious monster bearing down on her. It slows things down and allows the true terror of the situation to seep in. Beacham and del Toro have put a great amount of thought with how this world operates, and it’s appreciated as seemingly every detail adds to a richer big picture.
Naturally, the special effects are just about every positive accolade you can put together. It’s a CGI heavy film that doesn’t look like a cartoon; something Michael Bay’s Transformers have difficulty overcoming. The robot designs aren’t overly busy. In fact, the main robot reminds me a lot of Metroid’s Samus suit (anybody?). The monsters are all a bit too similar in design though. They all start to bend together making it hard to differentiate them from one another, especially when they’re supposed to be getting bigger and badder. Part of my lukewarm reception with the monster designs, besides from del Toro’s sterling past reputation when it comes to creature designs, is that so many of the epic fight scenes happen with some level of visual obfuscation. They fight at night, they fight in the rain, they fight in the fog, they fight underwater, but rarely will they fight in a setting where you can clearly focus on the fighters. This very well could be a budgetary decision, allowing less work for visual effects artists so they can cover the scope of del Toro’s imagination. Still, it’s hard for me to compose an argument that a $200 million-dollar movie needed just a bit more money to properly show off the goods.
When it’s not wrecking havoc onscreen, the story can drag and you’ll notice how thin the characters are developed. It’s another reluctant hotshot and learning to get over a personal tragedy, trusting a new co-pilot, and taking stern advice from a begrudging father figure. That doesn’t mean they don’t work within the framework of the story; Hunnam (TV’s Sons of Anarchy) is solid if unspectacular, Elba (Thor, TV’s Luther) is the universe’s most authoritative badass, Day (Horrible Bosses) and Gorman (The Dark Knight Rises) provide a nice array of comic relief, and Kikuchi (Babel, The Brothers Bloom) makes for a formidable upstart hero. The character roles are familiar and thinly sketched but they come together in a satisfying manner, each contributing to the mission, and each finding a moment to make you care. When the fate of the world is at stake, it’s hard not to feel some investment in our ragtag assembly of heroes. With that being said, you will still feel drag in the middle, waiting for the next attack and for our heroes to suit up and do what they do best. The extended second act involves denying Raleigh and Mako the opportunity to do what we all know they need to do – man a jaeger. It can get restless as we keep getting roadblocks to something that seems inevitable. It’s akin to waiting too long for John Reid to accept his outlaw status in The Lone Ranger. I will give Beacham and del Toro extra credit for not leaving themselves open for an immediate sequel. Also, do stay through the credits for a nice treat.
I can easily recommend Pacific Rim with minor reservations, and if giant fightin’ robots and monsters is your thing, then the reservations won’t even matter when you get a movie this entertaining, fun, and skilled at providing the gee-whiz factor. I wish all summer movies were this fun. I was squealing with glee watching a giant robot drag a cargo ship across the streets of Hong Kong, gearing up to beat down a huge monster. The movie is packed with little moments like that. As with other del Toro productions, the world feels nicely realized, lived in, and sprawling with detail, even if the monsters all start looking the same (monster racism?). The plot does suffer a bit when it refocuses on the humans, but then again what plot wouldn’t suffer when it takes you away from giant robots fighting aliens? Pacific Rim isn’t the first of its kind. Besides the anime, Godzilla, and even Power Rangers influences that spring to mind, there have been numerous movies that follow a similar premise of Giant Thing A squaring off against Giant Thing B. What sets Pacific Rim apart is del Toro’s innate ability to channel your childlike glee at the concept, turning something monstrous into something fun while still giving respect to the weight of the moment. This is not a dumb action movie. del Toro’s sprawling artistic sensibility takes on summer blockbuster filmmaking and shows you how it can be done right for optimal effect without making your brain hurt. Now I need round two.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to the things that go bump in the night. He helped shepherd the horror film Mama to the big screen, and his love of heavy atmosphere and creepy, agile, lithe figures of terror is still evident. This is a rather effective and very creepy little horror movie that has enough little scares, big screams, and plain skin-crawling moments to recommend. The plot involves two little girls left to fend for themselves out in the wilderness. The two young actresses are fantastic, with terrific physical command of their bodies, able to slink and hop around like feral beasts. They help emotionally ground what could have been an otherwise ordinary ghost story. Oh yes, the girls prayed to a protector known as “Mama” who happens to be a malevolent and jealous spirit. Pity Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), not just for her Gothic haircut and heavy eyeliner, but also as the girl’s reluctant foster mom. I’m shocked at how disturbing it is to watch a highly articulated physical specimen bend and snap and scurry at odd angles, broken arms bouncing like insect mandibles. And director/co-writer Andrés Muschietti knows how to properly tease an audience with just enough show and tell. The end is rather rote and familiar but, due to the emotional connection, has moments of genuine poignancy. Credit the considerable talents of the little ones as well as the devious vision of Muschetti and the guiding hand of del Toro. Give Mama a look.
Nate’s Grade: B
Dreamworks animation has long existed in the mighty shadow of Pixar, but as of late the studios might be at a creative crossroads. After the excellent Kung Fu Panda films and How to Train Your Dragon, suddenly Dreamworks animated movies matured beyond feverish, pop-culture explosions and into character-driven, colorful, and genuinely heartfelt family films. I don’t think we’ll be getting something as dismal as Shark Tale again with the current path the studio is blazing. Rise of the Guardians looks like the pilot for a new lucrative Dreamworks family franchise. It’s easy to see the appeal for a superhero assembly of fantasy figures, though is every region going to have working knowledge of the Tooth Fairy? The movie just looked too silly to function for me, but I was optimistic after raves from a few trusted friends. Perhaps my own childlike sense of wonder is permanently replaced with a heart of stone, but I found Rise of the Guardians to be a somewhat entertaining but mostly stilted, intellectually and emotionally, journey.
The guardians are an ancient group of holiday-themed characters entrusted with keeping the sense of wonder alive in children. There’s Santa Claus, a.k.a. North (voiced by Alec Baldwin), and his army of yetti workers, the tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), and her own collection agency of tooth-gathering fairies, the Sandman, in charge of the sweet dreams of children, and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), an Australian jack rabbit with a bit of a chip on his bunny shoulder. The world is threatened by Pitch (Jude Law), a bogeyman who desperately desires children to fear him again, because belief is what powers the Guardians. To stop Pitch and his array of nightmare creatures, the Guardians must add another member to their outlet, Jack Frost (Chris Pine). Except Jack has no interest in joining this fuddy-duddy group and would rather do his own thing, which usually involves wrecking havoc. Jack’s desperate to find out his past and figure out why he was chosen for his immortal role and what it will take to make kids believe in him.
Ultimately, I just couldn’t really get into this movie. It’s set up like an Avengers team of children’s fantasy figures, but I felt like the movie failed to make me emotionally connect with their plights. The Jack Frost protagonist was another tired variation on the selfish, plays-by-his-own-rules cowboy character that needs to learn a dash of personal responsibility and putting others first. But his goal is essentially to be… seen. He’s worried kids will never see him because they won’t ever believe in him. That’s a fairly abstract existential crisis for your main character to have, and one that I found too odd to care about. The entire core of the movie revolves around children’s sense of belief, and unless you’re twisting this into some general statement about the purpose of faith (the Man in the Moon = God?), then I find it all to be silly considering we’re talking about the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny. I mean, the main kid (Dakota Goyo) has to be eight or nine years old and still fervently believes in these mythical creatures, to the point that he is literally the only person on the planet who believes at one dour point (sheesh, talk about how easily disillusioned kids can get these days). We’re celebrating a kid going into adolescence believing in these things. That just smacks me as a little weird if you stop and think about the film’s implications. This kid is going to grow up socially warped. Then again his beliefs are proven right, so maybe it’s just the rest of us cynical bastards out there who need to adapt. I guess I’m going to go accept my fate and be a crotchety old man now.
The plot feels too airy for my liking, too frenetic to get to the next set piece or chase sequence. It doesn’t feel like it ever takes the time to settle down and develop its characters or story. As a result, we’re left with a fairly middling backstory for Jack Frost that should be easy to figure out, but we’re also stuck in a world that doesn’t feel like the rules have been sufficiently explained. Case in point: the Tooth Fairy keeps all those baby teeth in one huge archive because, you see, the teeth hold memories. I guess. But then Jack’s after his own teeth to retrieve his forgotten past (yes folks, we have an amnesiac protagonist). I’m okay with this so far though it’s a tad forced, but when Jack does get those teeth, he’s presented with memories at the age of 18. I know people suffered through poor dental hygiene hundreds of years ago, but you cannot expect me to believe that Jack is still losing baby teeth. This is just one example where the movie didn’t come across as fully formed. The Guardians all seem to possess different super powers involving space-time travel, but then they don’t seem to do anything with these abilities that matters by the final battle. Pitch has the ability to craft nightmare creatures and all he does is end up making wispy evil-looking horses. That seems like a waste. There are not enough payoffs here with all the imaginative possibilities.
Rise of the Guardians has some enjoyable moments but it practically relies upon you to supply all the work as far as character empathy. We’re familiar with these magical figures, and so the movie gets by because we put in the emotional connection to Santa and the Easter Bunny, but the characters just don’t register on the page, at least with this story. I don’t know if David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbithole, Inkheart) was the best candidate for the job, but he doesn’t give me enough reasons to engage with the movie. The characters are lackluster, their conflicts feel too abstract, the conclusion feels superfluous, and the world feels poorly defined, developed, and unsatisfying.
I like Chris Pine (Unstoppable) as an actor, but the man brings absolutely nothing to the table when it comes to voice acting. Baldwin (Rock of Ages) and Jackman’s (Real Steel) performances are defined by their respective accents. I feel like Hollywood needs some sort of seminal moment to go back to genuine voice artists rather than hiring whatever celebrity. Yes we all enjoyed Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin, but are you going to tell me that Pine’s vocal work was so exceptional he had to be cast? It’s like having celebrities provide the voices for the helium-sounding Chipmunks. The best voice actor in the film is clearly Law (Sherlock Holmes) who does such a good job I felt more sympathy for him than I did Jack Frost. I know it’s commonplace in movies for the hero and the villain to have some duality, but I wasn’t probably supposed to jump ship as far as loyalty. Maybe I just found the actual kids in the movie to be annoying so I didn’t mind a magical creature preying upon their collective childhood fear. It reminded me of the space cloud villain from 2011’s Green Lantern flop, where I wondered if this fear-sucking cloud sought out the delicacy of children’s fears first.
To top it all off, I found myself left rather cold by the visual aesthetics of the movie. It has this overly androgynous, big-eyed anime feel, and I kept getting the sense that the whole movie looked like an extended video game cut scene. This movie even had Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) and the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakens (Skyfall) as producers or visual consultants, so I’m even more baffled at how visually poor I found the movie. The colors are so muddy and the visuals felt so limited for me, especially considering the imaginative parameters of the characters and their respective worlds. I thought Pitch seemed oddly similar in visual approach to Hades in Disney’s underrated Hercules. The action sequences had some nice visual panache to them as far as choreography, but I couldn’t stop thinking how cruddy and dreary everything looked.
Rise of the Guardians is based upon a series of yet-to-be published books by famed author William Joyce, who won an Oscar himself the previous year for the animated short, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. I feel like that short was a better representation of magic and imagination than this film. The humor, the life lessons, the character development, it all felt so stilted to me. I thought the conflicts were too abstract and hard to care about (oh no, people have stopped believing in the Tooth Fairy!) and the world and rules felt too amorphous, poorly explained and creatively handicapped. If you’re going for a fantasy setting with larger-than-life figures, each with certain gifts and powers, hen I want the promise of that setup to be fulfilled. Rise of the Guardians isn’t a bad movie by any means but it left me cold and indifferent. It’s meant to strike at my childish sense of wonder, but I felt too often like a cynical adult, picking apart the frailties of its storytelling and muddy visual designs. It felt like it was missing the best magic of all: gifted storytelling. You’ll probably have more fun than I did, but that’s just because I probably have no soul.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I disliked the first Hellboy, dubbing it the second worst film of 2004. The fact that I enjoyed the sequel is nothing short of shocking. Honestly, I think this mumbo jumbo is easier to swallow when it’s more fantasy based than science fiction based. I can accept an alternative magical world filled with elf princes, troll markets, and tiny “tooth fairy” creatures that act like piranhas with wings. Nazis and Zombie Rasputin trying to open a portal to giant squids? Hellboy II is even more imaginative and far more enjoyable. Writer/director Guilermo del Toro has refined the world and makes sure his story follows the rules it sets, which means that while the plot gets crazy it doesn’t feel cheap. I actually had some fun with Hellboy II and del Toro knocks out some pretty crafty action sequences. As expected, the makeup and creature designs are impeccable, which may explain why I had more fun watching the various magical creatures than following Nazis and slime wolves in the first flick. The lithe Angel of Death is particularly startling, with a head like a fried calzone and eyeballs dotted along expansive bird wings. This is a film that feels much more confident about its identity, thanks in part to getting rid of the rookie main character from the first film and focusing on the big red guy. If del Toro ever makes a third Hellboy film, I can honestly say I’ll be highly intrigued to see what weird wonders he cooks up. This statement is astounding considering I felt that there was only one 2004 film worse than the original Hellboy.
Nate’s Grade: B
Fantasy has a naturally cheerful tone. Someone did not tell that to Mexican writer/director Guillermo del Toro. The Hellboy director is obsessed with all things creepy, crawly, and gooey, and his films all seem to revel in the things that go squish in the night. Pan’s Labyrinth is a children’s tale not intended for children. It’s more in line with the fairy tales of old that were violent, sickening, and something to strike fear in disobedient kids.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother to live in a cottage along the Spanish countryside. Her mother has remarried The Captain (Sergi Lopez), a brutal officer in the ruling fascist government. He’s a stern and unforgiving man and plotting to eliminate the remaining scattered resistance soldiers. Ofelia discovers a series of stone stairs that lead to an underground labyrinth. Inside is a faun (the titular Pan) who recognizes the spirit of his world’s missing princess inside Ofelia. He gives her tasks to complete that will prove whether or not she can return to the other world.
This is a fabulously dark Alice in Wonderland for a more mature set. Pan’s Labyrinth is very similar to del Toro’s 2002 The Devil’s Backbone, a smart and affecting ghost story set against Spain’s bloody civil war. del Toro has set his supernatural fantasies against some very real and very dangerous backdrops. The Devil’s Backbone was more than just a ghost story, and now Pan’s Labyrinth is more than just a fairy tale. The real world is a violent and cruel place and worthy of a magical escape. However, the fairy tale creatures are not from the Disney school of kinder, gentler folklore. The faun is evasive and prone to outbursts when he/it does not get his hooved way. The other creatures, like a giant slimy toad, are all after their own gain and don’t much care for a little girl’s interference. There is no escape to safety.
There are plenty of staples commonly found in fairy tales. Ofelia has to complete three tasks before the cycle of the moon. She has to complete trials of courage and prove her purity of heart. The characters look familiar but they definitely don?t behave the same. Pan’s Labyrinth has a continuing sense of dread. People die vicious deaths and the threat of violence is ever present.
The real world segments are just as engaging as the grander flights of fantasy. del Toro spins a very worthy tale of secrecy and suspicion at the dawn of Franco’s Spain. Several members of The Captain’s quarters are aiding the remaining resistance officers and risking their lives to hide their allegiance. It also draws the viewer in because these characters are the kind ones that look after Ofelia, who accidentally stumbles upon their secrets. The Captain is an earthly monster equal to the horrors of the fairy tale world. He has a deadly fixation with wasted time and punctuality (another Alice in Wonderland homage – the ticking pocket watch). Whether he’s torturing or shaving, the man seems peeved in all that he does. He tells the doctor that if a choice must be made, save the baby over the mother. His legacy demands an heir.
del Toro straddles differing genre lines like few artists out there. He has a great love for monster movies and horror but he also has great feel for human drama and a child’s wide-eyed point of view. Ofelia rests her head on her mother’s pregnant belly and speaks to her unborn brother. When her mother is experiencing complications she implores her brother to be gentle. It’s a little action but comes across as so honest and heartfelt from a child. The film is touching and exciting and pretty scary when it wants to be. Pan’s Labyrinth is a genre-bending gem that?s exceptionally well executed. The production design and make-up effects are terrific and lend to the otherworldly feel. The special effects are mostly a mix of practical designs and creepy make-up work, especially with the “Pale Man.” I especially enjoyed how the fawn moved and sounded, all clicks and creaks like he hadn’t moved his bones in ages. del Toro and his movie magicians do an excellent job of transporting you to two distinct worlds.
I could have used more labyrinth in my Pan’s Labyrinth. As it stands, the movie is divided as 15% fantasy world and 85% real world. That?s not enough for me. Maybe I just loved the fantasy elements too much or was expecting more of a live-action Spirited Away. Then again, del Toro has his mind set on an ambiguous ending that will divide the skeptics from the believers. Are there opposing worlds? Is Ofelia just making it up to escape reality? Whether what’s happening is real or not is irrelevant; Ofelia believes it is real. I feel that the movie could have been even greater had it utilized its fantasy side more.
Take for instance the “Pale Man,” a grotesque monster that has to place its eyeballs in the palms of its hands to see. When Ofelia enters his realm its covered in ancient art showing this faceless creature devouring children. A giant pile of shoes sits in a corner as a constant reminder of the creature’s appetites. However, the creature sits at the head of a table motionless, unless some irresponsible child takes a bite from the illustrious feast of food at the table. Then the “Pale Man” springs to life. The imagery is horrifying but beautifully sickening, and it’s just too regrettable that Pan’s Labyrinth only gives such a memorable monster one single scene. I kept hoping that the movie would revisit the world it had begun establishing, all for not. I thought at least del Toro would have a fascist officer chasing after Ofelia and she would trace a portal back into the “Pale Man’s” world. Then she would escape but the officer would be trapped. He’s take a bite from the feast and then our occularly-challenged friend would go, “Well, you’re a little older than I like, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.” CRUNCH! You must judge a movie for what it is, not what it could be, but I am certain Pan’s Labyrinth would have been even more remarkable had it just done more with its wild imagination. Oh well.
2006 has been something of a revelatory year for Mexican directors working within the Hollywood system. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu released Babel (bleh); Alfonso Curaon released Children of Men (wonderful), and now del Toro’s dark fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth is just starting to get a wider release. The film straddles the lines of genre, touching upon horror, human drama, fairy tale, historical action, and still finds time to be invigorating and moving. The production design and make-up effects do wonders to bring del Toro’s mordant imagination to chilling life. del Toro reigns supreme in the realm of sticky and icky things. Had the film actually spent more time interacting with its twisted fantasy creatures, I would gladly call Pan’s Labyrinth the best film of 2006. But alas we can’t all have our wishes comes true no matter how many fauns we encounter.
Nate’s Grade: A