Guillermo Del Toro shows an incredible amount of passion for his job. In interviews, in festivals, it is undeniable that this man adores making films, from one end of the creative process to another, and has tremendous energy and honesty for the activity. Nevertheless, there is something that doesn't function in his films, and as heartbreaking as it is to see someone with ideas and talent fail, this film isn't an exception and has a few weak points as well as his other ones. For some reasons explained further, it isn't even a "true" fantasy film. I have to stress upon how wonderful and magnificent the imagery - not just of this film but of all his films - is. Man-like creatures, caves, labyrinths, statues, puzzles, everything that contributed over the years to make Del Toro's imagery makes him a very powerful visual director, which times like these are in desperate lack of. The visions he projects onto the screen make him no less than a visionary. The thing that fails to give his film(s) the grandeur they need, though, seems to be always the same element: character depth / psychological analysis of his characters / the way the characters and their personalities blend into the rest of the film. Maybe we can attribute it to Del Toro having more patience to polish the sequences with special effects than the ones with actors, but in particular in this film, the characters seem to have no depth at all, they are grounded to feel one emotion at a time. Ofelia in the film is shown owning and reading books, but her relation to these books, what they mean to her, what they bring her, this relation is never shown or explained, we have to go by a stereotype and "assume" for ourselves that she has a wild imagination. The mother of Ofelia is also a faulty character of the story, we the audience have to fill a gap, and imagine for ourselves why shy would be attracted by Vidal, what brings her to be forced to stay with a monster like Vidal as opposed to remaining a single mother, etc... Vidal himself is very quickly presented: we know his lineage was military and that his father let him have his watch... not much of an emotional background for a man who tortures and kills with no hesitation! We know nothing of Vidal as a child, we only have this one-dimension, Manichean character. The list goes on, and none of the characters - Mercedes and Pablo, the doctor, etc, are presented or explained to the viewer. The same could be said about the elements of the illusory world. Usually, though, fantasy/horror films don't need any explanations (see Edward Scissorhands, Alien, Legend...), but this one would need to have some, and this is probably due to the state of psychological confusion of the characters (or, should I say, their irrationality). Ofelia, throughout the film, seems to live in constant fear of the tyrant Vidal, yet finds enough time and solace to go on imaginary journeys at night, and light-heartedly do anything the faun asks her, without even questioning or wondering where it will lead her. Mercedes, when given the opportunity to gut Vidal and be finished with him, leaves him alive half-way. And the doctor itself, whose side on the events is never clear, never poisons Vidal or puts himself in the way when given opportunities. Is Guillermo Del Toro cold? We might wonder. He has absolutely no scruples when he tries to shock the audience with violence towards nice characters, with monsters, with blood. Yet when his overall goal is to make a fantasy film, he remains a little bit too polite and shy to really break into the genre. To me, a "real" fantasy film would have had the imaginary break in the "reality". Yet Vidal doesn't see the faun, the faun doesn't save anyone or scares Vidal. Reality remains reality and fantasy remains inside the heads. The imaginary world in itself seemed a bit poor because of that, because of the film not really being a fantasy film, keeping the fantasy inside the head of its protagonist and reducing the spectrum of illusions (which are never directly opposed to the "realist" world). Overall, the film shows great academicism, not just by politely keeping the imaginary and the reality separated, but also by the decisions of the film-makers (the editing is gentle when it should be a bit punchier, the camera moves are scarce, the music is incredibly lame and boring, the camera angles are overall inexistent, etc).
I have no idea whether Del Toro will or will not provide better character depth and psychological progression in his next films, but it flaws the films he has made so far. Yes, there is a beautiful message, we've heard it before, of how monsters can be monsters on the inside and humans on the outside, while some monsters look like monsters and aren't all that bad after all. But until the characters and the story have a real depth and meaning to the audience, none of all the fantasy, violence or special effects will mean anything. The blunt reality as it is shown here, carries so much depression in it that the message of poetic escapism doesn't function in the end. The task is difficult to propel kids in wartime eras, it is even more difficult when fantasy takes part in it. Del Toro's next films will, hopefully, dig deeper into its characters.
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