By BEN NUCKOLS
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - - Guillermo del Toro was asked to direct "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," but he turned it down because, as a lapsed Catholic, he couldn't see himself bringing Aslan the lion back to life.
Instead, he put his dark, fervid imagination to work on an original story, "Pan's Labyrinth," a bloody and harrowing fairy tale that incorporates elements from C.S. Lewis' beloved Christian allegory and various other classics of children's literature.
Set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, "Pan's Labyrinth" shows why del Toro's sensibility is somehow both perfectly suited and utterly alien to the gentle "Narnia." He subjects his hero, an 11-year-old girl whose mother has married a captain in Gen. Francisco Franco's army, to shocking violence and vexing moral quandaries.
"I'm not proselytizing anything about a lion resurrecting. I'm not trying to sell you into a point. I'm just doing a little parable about disobedience and choice," del Toro said. "This is my version of that universe, not only 'Narnia,' but that universe of children's literature."
Del Toro, 42, a native of Guadalajara, is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron, two other Mexican filmmakers who've enjoyed international success this decade. All three released acclaimed movies in 2006 - - "Babel" from Inarritu and "Children of Men" from Cuaron.
The comparisons are inevitable because the three men are friends (Cuaron was a producer of "Pan's Labyrinth"), but del Toro stands out for his arresting visual style - - he uses color as evocatively as any contemporary filmmaker - - and his commitment to exploring mature themes through fantasy.
Comics fans know del Toro from "Blade II" - - easily the best in the series - - or "Hellboy" (he's in preproduction on the sequel). Arthouse habitués may have discovered him in 2001 with the release of "The Devil's Backbone" - - his first Spanish Civil War movie, a ghost story set in an orphanage. Horror cultists may adore his 1993 feature debut, "Cronos," a bizarre, allegorical vampire tale.
In "Pan's Labyrinth," young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves with her ailing, pregnant mother to an encampment in northern Spain where her stepfather, Capt. Vidal (Sergi Lopez) is rooting out what remains of the Republican resistance. She retreats into a magical realm guarded by a capricious, menacing incarnation of the Greek god Pan (Doug Jones), who tells her she might be a long-lost princess.
Del Toro "is not just a filmmaker; he's a film watcher," said Jones, a creature specialist who also appeared in del Toro's "Mimic" and "Hellboy" and plays two roles in "Pan's Labyrinth."
"He's a fanboy first, and he only makes movies that he really wants to watch, and he's got excellent taste," Jones said.
Dressed in a black from head to toe, with wire-rimmed glasses and a bushy but well-kept beard, del Toro is droll, articulate and profane. Consider his comparison (with expletives removed) of "Pan's Labyrinth," a defiantly R-rated fairy tale, with more innocuous children's fare.
"I do think there is far more an immoral position in creating a movie like 'Free Willy,' where I'm telling a kid, you know, 'If you swim next to a ... killer whale, she'll become your friend.' ... No! She will eat your ... guts and spit you out!"
Del Toro continues in a more reflective vein: "If my child watches my movies by accident, they will not try to think the world is a safe place, which it's not. Children should know the dangers of the world and not be neurotically isolated from them."
Del Toro said Ofelia is an amalgam of himself and his 10-year-old daughter. His movies frequently incorporate autobiographical elements and center on children whose parents are absent or dead. Although del Toro's parents are alive and he says he has a good relationship with them, he was raised largely by his conservative Catholic grandmother ("She was like Piper Laurie in 'Carrie'," he said).
"I've spent the rest of my life recuperating from my first ten years," del Toro said. "It's a brutal time of learning, and I think that I tried to bring the violence that I felt - - moral, spiritual, and even physical - - into the movies."
Violence has persisted into del Toro's adult life. In 1997, his father was kidnapped for ransom in Mexico, and was released after 72 days of torturous negotiations.
The kidnapping sent del Toro into exile. With his wife and two daughters, he divides his time between Los Angeles and Madrid, and he hasn't worked in his native country since 1993's "Cronos." But the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) provides a fertile and personal subject for del Toro, who soaked up the work and the politics of Spanish artists and intellectuals who sought refuge in Mexico during Franco's oppressive regime.
Fascists, then, make great boogeymen in his movies, and he makes no apologies for the borderline-cartoonish sadism of Capt. Vidal, the villain in "Pan's Labyrinth."
"I think that in these movies, these characters work mostly as types. Hellboy is a type. He's not by any stretch of the imagination a Dostoevskian, three-dimensional, psychologically profiled hero. He is a type. So is Vidal. So is the girl," del Toro said. "I have never been interested in working in the real world or with real characters."
Lopez, as Vidal, is a handsome, charismatic leading man, which in del Toro's universe makes for an ideal fascist.
"I think the best people I've ever met are people full of defects, and the worst people I've ever met are people obsessed with being perfect," del Toro said.
Despite the demands of the fairy-tale universe, Ofelia's journey - - framed by the brutality of war and a damaged, imperiled family - - remains wrenchingly real. It shows the trauma that ideological strife can inflict on children and their reserves of maturity in times of crisis.
It's that amalgam between a heightened milieu and genuine emotion that leads Jones to treasure his collaborations with del Toro.
"Even though he's got monsters and fantasy creatures and fantastic things happening within his stories," Jones said, "his stories to me really do reflect the average, everyday human experience."
Star Beacon Print Edition: 12/29/2006
By BEN NUCKOLS
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