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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Succesful Fantasy Director Speaks Out

PAN'S LABYRINTH was my favorite film of 2006. Like CORALINE and SPIRITED AWAY, it is about a young girl who rescues (or attempts to rescue) a family member from a sinister fantasy world. But the first two films have more resonance than CORALINE because they contain symbolism that works according to the laws of their particular universes. While their 'myths' are in fact original, they are easily understood by the viewer. The Miyazaki film's themes and symbols make reference to contemporary environmental consciousness and also to Japanese mythology. This gives it an interesting design flavour, particularly in the bathhouse sequences. PAN'S LABYRINTH's universe is firmly grounded in European fairy tales and symbolism. The labyrinth of the title literally affects the main characters' lives, as this wonderful interview with Del Toro proves:

“The labyrinth is a very, very powerful sign,”
explained del Toro. “It’s a primordial, almost iconic symbol. It can mean so
many things, culturally, depending on where you do it. But the main thing for me
is that, unlike a maze, a labyrinth is actually a constant transit of finding,
not getting lost. It’s about finding, not losing, your way...
...I can ascribe two concrete meanings of the labyrinth in the movie. One is
the transit of the girl towards her own center, and towards her own, inside
reality, which is real. I think that Western cultures make a difference about
inner and outer reality, with one having more weight than the other...The other transit I can say is the transit that Spain goes
through, from a princess that forgot who she was and where she came from, to a
generation that will never know the name of the fascist. And, the other one is
the Captain being dropped in his own historical labyrinth. Those are things I
put in. But then, as I said, the labyrinth is something else. Each culture will
ascribe a different weight to it.”
Guillermo del Toro on Fairy Tales and Inspiration: ...Even
when I was a kid, funny enough, I used to be able to find those fairy tales that
felt preachy and pro-establishment, and I hated them. I hated the ones that were
about, ‘Don’t go out at night.’ There are fairy tales that are created to
instill fear in children, and there are fairy tales that are created to instill
hope and magic in children. I like those. I like the anarchic ones. I like the
crazy ones. And, I think that all of them have a huge quotient of
darkness because the one thing that alchemy understands, and fairy tale lore understands, is that you need the vile matter for magic to flourish. You need lead to turn it into gold.
You need the two things for the process. So when people sanitize fairy tales and homogenize them, they become completely uninteresting for me."

Other Miyazaki films such as PRINCESS MONONOKE are grounded in what could be cultural memory or traditional fairy tale, but is in fact original 'myth' created for the film.

Both SPIRITED AWAY and PAN'S LABYRINTH are picaresque adventures unified by 'original' -mythic structure. Both of these are far better films than CORALINE. The latter film is a collection of technical marvels with no underlying mythic theme to unify them. The characters have no real resonance in either of the film's two worlds.


Anonymous said...

I haven't yet seen Coraline so I'll withhold opinion on that.

I agree with your thoughts on Spirited Away to some extent. It does a fine job finding balance between cultural inspiration and originality, but I think it's ultimately hurt by its awkward pacing and uneven story. Its visuals are amazing and its concepts are extremely unique, but I don't feel that the viewer can really be absorbed into Miyazaki's world the way he wants us to be. It seems to me they were so preoccupied on creating unique symbolism they lost sight of the story.

Of course, it's a marvelous film all the same. I just wouldn't put it in the same level of greatness as Princess Mononoke or My Neighbor Totoro.

Nancy said...

Hi Alex,

While I feel that SPIRITED AWAY has a weak third act, and the story falls apart as soon as the dragon enters, it plays far better than CORALINE.

Heir to the Throne said...

Well, if you don't mind me playing a pseudo Devil's advocate, Coraline might not have too grounded in common myth, folklore, or any of the other magical historical conjurations, but instead it attempted to create its own foundation. And while the imagery doesn't seem immediately recognizable as something grounded in what we already know from our culture, is attempting to develop one's own world free of those binds necessarily a thing to criticize? Perhaps if this particular world sought to alienate the audience (like the joked-about film so brilliant that only its director knows what the heck is going on), but I thought the themes and imagery throughout the film were brilliantly consistent. (The taffy sisters, for instance.) Yet I still don't consider this film entirely its own inspired-free entity, as there were some definite Lewis Carroll influences throughout.

I can't really argue in entire defense of this film (I haven't given it _too_ much thought), but I personally wasn't irked by the issues you brought up. All I know is that I did enjoy it, warranted or not. (I mean, I still get a kick out of the original Transformers movie and there's no way I can defend that haha .. or can I?)

Anyway, your thoughts?

Speaking of the taffy sisters, when I saw them I immediately thought that these were some character designs you would approve of. Haha Am I right or wrong?


Nancy said...

Hi Neil,
CORALINE attempted to create its own world. And it failed, in my opinion. The other two films were far superior in this regard.

As for the Taffy Sisters, I found their design very weak. They were designed to look ridiculous, not to make any sort of plot point. Was there any particular reason to have one sister's breasts larger than her head? They were the focal point of every scene.
And who cares that they are transformed into their younger selves? They had no real purpose in the film except to give Coraline something that she didn't have to earn, or work for, or show any initiative for...