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Wednesday, July 11, 2007 03:50 am

Fantasy escapes

When flights of fancy aren’t suitable for children

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Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Untitled Document Children often invent fantasy worlds to escape from their own harsh realities, and filmmakers have used this as a basis for their own flights of fantasy. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) has been lauded as a modern classic, which is more hype than reality. The fantasy scenes are the weakest element, and they detract from a powerful dramatic film. Ofelia lives under the tyrannical rule of her new stepfather, a captain in Spain’s fascist army after the civil war. The Captain, one of cinema’s most despicable villains, will resort to any torturous means necessary to gain information about the rebel forces. Ofelia imagines a large insect to be a fairy that leads her to an imaginary world of somewhat silly creatures. Do we really need a giant vomiting frog or a Jar Jar Binks clone to understand her torment? The fantasy scenes actually take up a smaller portion of the film, and they could have been easily excised. I doubt that anyone would have sensed that anything was missing. An earlier del Toro film suffers from the same problem. The Devil’s Backbone (2001) haunts another Spanish Civil War-era child with a mediocre ghost story. Again, the greatest terror comes from a truly heinous human villain. The director possesses the potential for greatness, but he doesn’t have the confidence to rely on the reality of his material. Terry Gilliam, the real master of fantasy, unleashed his own psychotic version of Alice in Wonderland, and it barely saw the light of a projector. Tideland (2005) is strange even by Gilliam’s standards. The young daughter of heroin addicts conjures up her own freakish world after she is left to fend for herself. Gilliam is better at fusing the fantasy and real worlds, but that doesn’t make the film any more successful. Tideland simply meanders along without building any dramatic purpose. Philip Ridley takes a different tack in his brilliant and unjustly neglected film The Reflecting Skin (1990). The rural world of Seth is already strange, and all we need are his interpretations. He believes that his neighbor is a vampire, and in many ways she appears to be one. Ridley is able to convey Seth’s fantasy world without ever veering from the real world. Sometimes less is more. One final note: None of these films is for children.
New on DVD this Tuesday (July 17): The Number 23, Premonition, 
and The Hills Have Eyes II.
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