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Guillermo the Great

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Wednesday, Jul 9, 2008

Guillermo Del Toro should be Peter Jackson. He should be sitting on a multi-billion dollar franchise, a few Oscars, and that rare combination of mainstream movie studio cred and overwhelming geek love. Granted, the Mexican maverick has gained a couple of these career accolades over the last ten years, his resume overflowing with awards, appreciation, and the kind of adoration reserved for rock stars. Heck, he’s become so powerful within the closed community of Hollywood that he managed to get a sequel made of his amazing Hellboy, even though the first film was no blockbuster, and there was no great grassroots groundswell to revisit the franchise.


When Columbia Pictures bailed, more or less dooming the director’s proposed trilogy, Universal came in and scooped up the series. At the time, it was seen as a major gamble. Even with his Blade II commercial rep and Devil’s Backbone/Pan’s Labyrinth aesthetic aura, Del Toro was not a guaranteed box office hero. In retrospect, it was a genius play on the part of the powers that be. In between greenlighting the return of everyone’s favorite cat and candy loving demon superhero, the Academy came calling, and so did Middle Earth. Indeed, Del Toro is now in preproduction to bring The Hobbit (as well as a follow-up linking film) to the big screen. For the next four years, JRR Tolkien will be his life, and just like the man who he should be, it will be a make or breakthrough for the filmmaker.


Like Jackson, Del Toro really doesn’t require the need of that famed work of fantasy literature to establish his true cinematic value. He is responsible for some remarkably visionary works, from the giant insect deconstruction of Mimic to the vampires as vultures/victims in his take on Blade. A love of old school horror has made him dabble successfully in the genre (Cronos) as well producing the brilliant ghost story by Juan Antonio Bayona, The Orphanage. An appreciation of comics brought him to Mike Mignola’s usual graphic novel, and always the outsider, Del Toro delivered a big screen action film without a major star (Ron Pearlman as the lead?) or well known marketing icon. Yet thanks to his undeniable passion and kid in a candy store scope, he evoked the best of what makes movies magic - the pure power in visuals. It has become his considered calling card.


Looking over Del Toro’s oeuvre, it’s clear that the image is everything. Take the genetically altered cockroaches in Mimic. Their ability to resemble humans, combined with the inherent terror of their oversized awfulness, makes them an endearing bit of macabre. Similarly, his Blade gave neckbiters a mandible to be wary of, while the first Hellboy filled the screen with all manner of heretofore unseen monsters. But it was his smaller films, his work in Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth that sealed the spectacle deal. From the unforgettable symbolism of the unexploded bomb in the children’s home courtyard to the Great Faun, its bent-back legs and elongated limbs suggesting an ancient folklore façade, Del Toro definitely believes that a picture is worth a thousand words - and a million narrative possibilities.


With Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, the man’s imagination machine goes into overdrive. It’s a movie that literally fills the screen with optical eye candy. The moment our hero’s father figure - Trevor Bruttenholm - tells the story of the truce between mankind and magic (illustrated in a stop motion puppetoon style that suggests the very best of George Pal), we know we’re in for a major treat. That things only get better from here is a testament to Del Toro’s constantly churning creativity. Doors are complex puzzle boxes, rock formations the humanoid gateways to other worlds. Even when he applies a standard physical F/X motif to his work (the mesmerizing Troll City), we can sense the purpose and playfulness in his stratagem.


Some suggest that Hellboy 2 has too much visual splendor, that it allows excess to overwhelm both its sensible and supernatural approaches. Actually, this is not a criticism so much as a reflective and rather damning disclosure. The reason most people feel that the film offers too much in the way of wonder is because so many so-called fantasies are absolutely bereft of same. The sequel may play like Ghostbusters on steroids, but Del Toro isn’t doing anything that his fanbase hasn’t complained about and then embraced for the last ten years. The Star Wars prequels were some of the busiest, most CGI-laden examples of overindulgence ever, and yet no one is giving George Lucas grief for his images (his casting choices and script writing, on the other hand…).


No, what makes Del Toro’s tapestry so dense and daunting is its connection to tradition and old world mythology. You see, films like Hellboy 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth rely on a knowledge of legend and fable as a means of making sense of their often symbolic substance. When a city sized Elemental attacks our gun-wielding Hellspawn, its purpose is not just to destroy. No, it wants to reclaim the natural order, the delicate balance that once allowed it to live in harmony with all others. Similarly, the faun is not testing Ofelia by having her fight any particular set of creatures. Each of her challenges represents a step in the maturation process, a point of reference that will make her last act sacrifice seem majestic, instead of meaningless.


All of Del Toro’s nightmares and dreamscapes work this way. The villainous Prince Nuada doesn’t want to simply destroy all humans. He wants them to understand the pain they’ve inflicted on the otherworldly realm. His goal is both nasty and noble, which makes his efforts both ghastly and somewhat valiant.  As with many characters in the Del Toro canon, the complexity fills many functions. A champion is never pure, the wicked never wholly so. Evil comes in a compelling visage, while good can always screw up and shift the eternal equilibrium. Beyond the way they look and they way they fight, the most fascinating element in a Del Toro movie remains how he can turn the tiniest of pixies (the Golden Army‘s beguiling Tooth Fairies) into the most voracious of horrors.


That is why he should be Peter Jackson. That is why he should - and probably will - share the New Zealand auteur’s place among the vaunted visionaries of our generation. For both of these amazing men, vistas come with a value, an unspoken price to be paid by the protagonists who populate them and the antagonists who want them destroyed. For both, story is simply a place to put characters, a chance to allow narrative to strengthen personality and illustrate inclination. For both, technology is the canvas, not the brush. It’s the mind that does all of the heavy inventive lifting. For them, cinema represents the ultimate expression of man’s inspired soul, a picture book as philosophy, film as a force of fate.


In the years to come, we’ll be the lucky ones. We’ll be able to relate our accounts of coming across Dead Alive for the first time, or seeing Pan’s Labyrinth with a paid audience (and not a dry eye in the house). We’ll recall the interviews which made madness sound sane and personal daring appear cautious. Most importantly, we’ll rejoice in seeing the very boundaries of an important artform stretched to their very limits, redefined, and then put back for others to enjoy. And we’ll recall the moment when Guillermo Del Toro moved from the fringes to the front row, bringing his own overflowing mind’s eye with him.  If he’s not already Peter Jackson, he should be. On the other hand, here’s hoping he stays forever himself. He’s pretty great the way he is.

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