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Thursday, December 14, 2006

 

Something for the Kids: Pan's Labyrinth and Miss Potter

PAN'S LABYRINTH
Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Alex Angulo, Eusebio Lazaro, Paco Vidal, Manolo Solo, Federico Luppi and Ariadna Gil
Written by Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Rated R for graphic violence and some language

MISS POTTER
Starring Renée Zellwegger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Lucy Boynton, Barbara Flynn, Bill Patterson, and Matyelok Gibbs
Written by Richard Maltby, Jr.
Directed by Chris Noonan
Rated PG


As beautiful as it is schizophrenic, as potent as it is disturbing, Guillermo del Toro’s wartorn fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth is a deeply odd concoction. Make that an ‘adult fantasy’, as the press materials call it…for despite the presence of little girls, magical fauns and mythical kingdoms, this bleak, mirthless, brutally violent film is not appropriate for anyone not old enough to drive a car.

There are two precariously conjoined tales in this Labyrinth. One involves a sensitive young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), with a sadistic stepfather and an overactive imagination. The other story is a gritty political drama set against the Spanish Civil War, replete with gun battles, revolutionaries, and battalions. The two plotlines try fainheartedly to merge behind common themes: mindless obeyance versus free thought, valor over despotism. But watching the film, one gets no significant ideological resonance; it feels more like a sadistic mashup of Bridge Over The River Kwai and the duller sequences of The Chronicles of Narnia.

To be fair, it does have an exquisite production design, akin to the work of Peter Jackson. But despite its visual splendor, the film makes crucial errors, including a repetitious narrative (Really: another gun battle? Another piece of magic chalk?) and overblown performances (especially Sergi López as the maleficent Captain Vidal, whose abusive demeanor recalls the theatrics of Cinderella’s stepmother). A serious misstep comes in the final moments of the film, when the premise we have been asked to believe – that the little girl is able to see a world beyond our own – is sloppily and cynically tossed aside. If the movie itself doesn’t believe in magic, why should we? The desolate atmosphere also mutes the few virtues the film does have, including the luminous Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as a spying housekeeper.

But any serious discussion of Pan’s Labyrinth has to begin and end with this question: beyond the del Toro fanboys and slumming Frodo fans, who is it for? Too adult for children and too simplistic for most adults – with nothing of serious import to say about war or innocence – it ultimately leaves us with some of the prettiest cinematic pictures of the year. And nothing more.

MISS POTTER

If Pan’s Labyrinth is missing the whimsical charm so necessary for mythical fables, Chris Noonan’s MISS POTTER is nearly drowning in the stuff. A dainty, sugar-coated biography of Beatrix Potter (Renée Zellwegger), the author of many timeless childrens’ books including Peter Rabbit, the film has a perky style reminiscent of second-rate Jane Austen – a parable of female empowerment and class strife swathed in bustles and British witticisms.

Which makes it perfectly adequate holiday entertainment, for girls of a certain age. It’s also (blessedly) not stupid, and in its best moments, it has a romantic sweep that transcends the sometimes plodding dialogue. The bad news is that Beatrix is played by Renée Zellwegger as a bundle of fidgety gestures and irritating giggles. Miss Potter sees Beatrix as charmingly ‘eccentric’ and ‘peculiar’, but Zellwegger pummels the delicate lines of her character beyond eccentricity to questionable retardation. The remaining players, however, are sublime; Ewan McGregor is charming as the faintly geeky love interest, Norman Warne, and Emily Watson is delightful as Norman’s unmarried sister Millie. My favorite performances, however, were by actors who spun gold from very small roles: Barbara Flynn as Beatrix’s self-absorbed mother, and Matyelok Gibbs as the stern, silent chaperone Miss Wiggin, who caused me to laugh out loud half a dozen times.

Director Noonan, who famously made pigs speak in Babe, knows from fanciful; when Beatrix’s drawings of rabbits, ducks and frogs animate in her imagination, Noonan finely treads the line between charm and hokum. The script by Richard Maltby, Jr., is erratic, especially in the third act, where Potter becomes obsessed with buying rural farmland. But even so, there’s enough cheery pleasantries to make this a passable holiday alternative for anyone looking to entertain a young child. Skip the tap dancing penguins, and follow Peter Rabbit, like millions of children have before. And avert your eyes when Zellwegger starts that manic giggling thing.

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