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, 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 for, 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."
His "little parable" was one of last year's most honored films. It showed up on many critics' best-of lists, including those of the Florida Film Critics Circle and the Southeastern Film Critics Association (each named it best foreign language film). It's also a best picture nominee for the Spirit Awards (formerly the Independent Spirit Awards), which honor films produced on budgets of less than $20-million.
A span of genres
Del Toro, 42, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron, two other Mexican filmmakers who have 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. The three 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 and Hellboy (he is in preproduction on the sequel). Art house habitues 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.
Tough, but true
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."
Del Toro is droll, articulate and profane. Consider his comparison (with expletives removed) of Pan's Labyrinth, a defiantly R-rated fairy tale, with 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!"
Wait and see
Pan's Labyrinth does not have an opening date in the Tampa Bay area.