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A war movie wrapped in a girl’s fantasy wrapped in a parable, Pan’s Labyrinth is more greatfilm than enigma.

“I think monster movies are fantastic parables about the human condition,” Pan’s Labyrinth writer and director Guillermo del Toro explains.

It’s the subject matter with which he’s built his name.

“This is the kind of movie I want to do all my life. I’d love to be pigeonholed. People say, ‘Oh, this is just a monster movie.’ Yeah, well, a monster movie can be anything from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast to Godzilla. There’s a huge, incredible richness to that spectrum. I’ve always been fascinated by people who can speak of big issues through fantasy and genre. Be it George Romero or David Cronenberg or Franju. I’m attracted to the art of graveyard poetry.”

The focus is paying off for the filmmaker. Born in Mexico in 1964, del Toro made a notable debut with the 1993 independent vampire film Cronos. Since then, he’s directed the giant cockroach thriller Mimic—which he tried to disown due to creative interference by the producers, the Weinstein brothers—the terrific festival circuit hit The Devil’s Backbone, and comic book properties Blade II and Hellboy. With Pan’s Labyrinth, he’s receiving the most critical attention of his career.

“I have my childhood mind, and I find that through the years that’s the only audience I understand,” he says over the phone from Los Angeles. “I cannot investigate whether an audience is going to be moved or not, only whether I’m moved or not myself.”

Del Toro’s thick Spanish accent does nothing to hide his excitement for his work. His preoccupation with themes of childhood enters his films in several ways. Like a lot of deeply humanist filmmakers, del Toro isn’t above making movies about the most vulnerable people on earth. On a simpler level, he’s very sentimentally attached to his own childhood. Pan’s Labyrinth, like its 2001 precursor The Devil’s Backbone, blends horror allegory with history (the impact of the Spanish Civil War, in both cases). It’s a film for audiences who haven’t lost touch with the values and resources they had as children.

“I wanted it very much to be a sister film to the boy’s film The Devil’s Backbone,” del Toro says. “That was an adventure movie for boys. This is a girl’s movie. Most of my creative energy comes from the source of my childhood. I jokingly say I’ve spent 30 years trying to forget my first 10. But in a strange way, more than trying to forget those years, is trying to deal with them. I grew up in an incredibly Catholic environment as a kid, where I spent many years with my grandmother. It was difficult for a kid of my emotional disposition. I tend to worry about original sin for weeks and weeks.”

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the creative isolation del Toro experienced finds itself in young heroine Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). Having moved into a countryside residence with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil), she witnesses the tyranny of her new stepfather Vidal (Sergi Lopez). He’s a fascist, malicious captain serving in Franco’s army, who orders the execution of socialist rebels hiding in the nearby hillside. Ofelia frequently escapes into a dark fantasy world, where she’s tested by a faun (half-man, half-goat), played by Doug Jones.

Jones, who also appears in the smaller and more chilling role of the reptilian The Pale Man, was taken by Pan’s two-sided nature. “There’s an ambiguity to Pan,” he says during a call from LA. “He’s both playful and mischievous. But he invites Ofelia into this world, and becomes a catalyst for her escape.”

For del Toro, Pan is a holdover of his own childhood.

“The faun is taken directly from a lucid dream I had as a kid where a faun would come out from behind my grandmother’s armoire every night. It was almost exactly the faun that appears in the movie. A faun in mythology is a character that can both represent creation and destruction,” del Toro says. “I was very interested in using Pan almost like a trickster, because in my mind, The Pale Man is just another side of him. He’s a disguise. I don’t think the movie’s about whether Ofelia succeeds or fails on his tests, as much as it’s about how she goes about them—her attitude and her bravery.”

It’s Pan’s ambiguity and elegance that appealed to Jones. “Pan never scared me at all,” he says. “But The Pale Man terrified me. Originally, he was supposed to gallop when he chases Ofelia. It was decided instead that he’d reach out for her with these long fingernails, which is interesting because it’s a lot like a terrible nightmare I used to have.”

The director agrees. “The Pale Man’s a primal nightmare character that you could find in the notebook of a very disturbed child.”

Given their shared sensibility, it’s not surprising that del Toro and Jones have had a friendly working relationship. It began when Jones was cast as a giant insect in Mimic. He then landed the part of merman Abe Sapien in Hellboy, a role he’ll reprise for the sequel, which del Toro is set to deliver in summer 2008.

“Guillermo insisted I be in Pan’s Labyrinth,” Jones says. “He gave me the script and told me I had 24 hours to read it, which is typical for a director. But it was a page-turner.”

Jones got his big break as Mac Tonight, the crescent-moon-headed jazz singer who sold Big Macs on McDonald’s commercials in the 1980s. His next high-profile role will be in disguise again, playing the Silver Surfer in this summer’s sequel to Fantastic Four.

“It’s not like I came to Hollywood thinking, ‘Boy, I hope I can get work as monsters,’” Jones says. “Just wearing the costume for a character like Pan is very heavy. You have puppeteers who are in charge of only moving the ears. The Pale Man is a different category, that’s more of a makeup job. But even playing these elaborate creatures, I recognize myself in my movements. People tell me they recognize me in how my hands move. I love to get to do this stuff. It’s crazy. I’m 46 years old. I tend to forget the 4 at the start of that.”

What’s intriguing listening to Jones and del Toro is that each of them were able to carry their fascination with the monsters that scared and excited them as kids into adulthood passions. Not surprisingly, del Toro claims to know Jones’ talents well.

“You can sometimes give the greatest actors a series of makeup and prosthetics and the actor will die and suffocate within them. Doug comes alive through that,” the director says. “He has a delicate approach to character that makes him an incredibly intelligent actor. Not a performer. Not a mime. An actor.”

The duo is very excited about the accolades being thrown toward their newest project, which is now becoming a popular hit. It was number one on my Best of 2006 list, received a prolonged ovation at Cannes, was awarded Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics and received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. The movie has also been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Language Film of the Year and Best Original Screenplay. But del Toro is aware of the criticisms. Some have found the film’s view of good and evil too black and white, singling out the character of Vidal as a comic-book villain, a trait the filmmaker says was necessitated by design.

“It’s very hard to do a fairytale structure and at the same time do a war film. The war film by necessity requires a higher level of reality. But I cannot go and try to create psychological types and three-dimensional characters. The whole film must have the rhythm of a fairy tale, and the fairy tale depends on the characters being archetypes. Each character is representative of values in a story.”

It’s a balance between two realities del Toro also had to structure visually, while maintaining a narrative consistency throughout.

“I believe in the fantasy world being stronger than the real world,” he says. “So I textured both worlds differently. I did the real world in simpler lines, a colder palette. And the fantasy world I made more detailed, more textured and warmer in the colour palette and forms.”

Pan’s Labyrinth is very close to del Toro’s heart, a sentiment he holds only for certain of his movies.

Blade II certainly is a movie I enjoyed the hell out of shooting, but it was not my universe,” he says of his contribution to the Wesley Snipes vampire-hunter series. “The only thing I brought to that universe were a couple of ideas for the conflict of the father and son, and the conception of the vampires, The Reapers. I was actually in favour of the vampires more than in favour of Blade.”

This is where the heartfelt importance of Pan’s Labyrinth comes into play. It’s Guillermo del Toro’s latest effort to express the sorrow, treachery and redemption in the world through pop myth. That uncommon faith in genre is strong enough that del Toro finds it worthy of exploring the Spanish Civil War, a subject he’s very serious about. Del Toro says, “If you stop the man on the street and ask, they say, ‘Well that war ended, so it must have ended well.’

“The tragedy is that the Spanish Civil War serves as a horrifying prologue and very tragic epilogue to World War II. It was an experimentation field for weapons and tactics in that war. And later, in the early ’40s, it was one of the last bastions of resistance in favour of helping the allies bring down the Nazis and stopping the Fascists. These allies were rewarded by being ignored and left to their own devices to survive Franco.”

Guillermo del Toro’s romanticism about the power of movies is seen in his allegorical take on horror—something that he admits separates his movies from the wave of teen-market gore films like Saw and Hostel.

“Some horror movies come from a genuinely disturbing place,” he says. “But they spawn a lot of imitations. The first in the Saw series was incredibly smart and cruel. It’s almost a jigsaw puzzle of cruelty. It had a very intelligent use of a low budget. But is it my kind of movie? No. Was I there opening day for Saw II and Saw III? No. Will I be in line for any of these type of movies? No. I’ll catch them on DVD, probably.

“My kind of movie is more spiritual horror. I went through my gore years when I was a kid. It’s a very young genre. Very rebellious. Very anarchic. And I see it with kind eyes. But I’m past that as a moviegoer. As a moviegoer, I’m not so interested in cruelty as I am in compassion.”

With the beauty and brutality of Pan’s Labyrinth dignifying monster movies for people who believe they offer more than gruesome escapism, simple nihilism isn’t enough.

Del Toro pauses on this thought.

“The most amazing form of rebellion is compassion,” he says. “And actually the most effective one, I think.”

Mark Palermo is an unaccountable by-product of the Too Much Information Age. He’s a freelance writer, film critic, independent filmmaker and covert sellout to scripting Hollywood music videos.

Pan’s Labyrinth opens January 26.

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