"IF THERE'S NOT A MONSTER on my call sheet, I won't show up to a shoot," Guillermo del Toro recently and giddily confessed to Charlie Rose. "I love monsters."
Yeah, he does. Which is probably why you're not going to hear del Toro's name proclaimed during the Oscars, nor are you likely to see his films—as smart, fun, and moving as they can be—given the respect they deserve. Sure, del Toro's a great filmmaker, but real filmmakers don't make movies about vampires and ghosts, right?
I first realized how amazing del Toro was with—okay, hold on. Here's where I'm going to lose most of you. But stick with me, here, if you can. You'll thank me later. Let's try that again: I first discovered how great del Toro was with Blade II.
Okay, so most of you bailed at that part. Which is fine. A comic book movie about Wesley Snipes slaying vampires? Not for everybody. But beneath Blade II's goofy, gory façade, there's a pretty excellent film: slickly shot, excellently cut, and stylishly directed. (Plus: exploding vampires!)
And backtracking through del Toro's filmography stirs up all sorts of great stuff. The best: 2001's eerie, beautiful The Devil's Backbone, produced by Pedro Almodóvar. A drama set in Spain following that country's civil war of 1939, Backbone combines introspective drama, history, and ghosts both metaphorical and literal. There's also 1993's surreal vampire tale Cronos, which preceded the Mexican del Toro's first (and unsuccessful) stab at American filmmaking, Mimic, about giant cockroaches who wanted to eat Mira Sorvino (unsuccessful on many levels, that one). Then there's Hellboy, del Toro's adaptation of the Lovecraftian comic; goofy and earnest, Hellboy's easy to disparage. But it's also so good-hearted that it's bewildering why anyone would want to do so.
Which brings us to del Toro's latest, Pan's Labyrinth—which, if raving reviews and a rapturous response at Cannes are to believed—is del Toro's masterpiece. Again set in post-civil war Spain, Labyrinth follows a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero); as post-war fascism dominates her life, she discovers an ancient forest presided over by a faun who's at once welcoming and sinister (Doug Jones). Descending into a world of myth, danger, and horror, Ofelia's story becomes twofold—roughly half of Labyrinth deals with historical drama, while the other explores the fantastic and symbolic.
Largely, Labyrinth is breathtaking: Rich performances, stunning visuals, and an assured, original tone demonstrate how dear the material is to del Toro. If there are quibbles to be had, they deal with del Toro's inability to tell when too much is too much: His film is an affecting study fairy tales and their relevance, but del Toro occasionally gets entangled in the tropes of the fantasy genre, allowing some of his characters to veer into caricature.
But when Labyrinth is considered as a whole, those quibbles are minor, bordering on insignificant. And actually, I take it back about never hearing del Toro's name in the same sentence as the Academy Awards—Labyrinth could be the film that finally introduces del Toro to audiences who aren't into watching Wesley Snipes blow up vampires. With Pan's Labyrinth, the singularly gifted del Toro demonstrates that great filmmaking and a love for monsters hardly need to be mutually exclusive.