The 2007 Long Form nominees are probably the finest class the Hugos ever had. This is the first time I’d take the Hugo film nominees over the Oscar nominees. It’s great that Scorcese finally got an Oscar, but The Departed is not his best film, and if you want a brilliant and twisty tale about identity, I’d go with The Prestige first. The best foreign language film about conflict in the ‘40s might have been Letters from Iwo Jima…but Pan’s Labyrinth is a lot more original. I didn’t see Babel, but I’ve heard it’s a ridiculously depressing tale by a Mexican director, and I doubt it’s as good as Children of Men..also a depressing film by a Mexican director. Little Miss Sunshine may be quirky and fun, but it can’t be as quirky A Scanner Darkly, though drug-induced paranoia isn’t half as freaky as child beauty pageants. And, who needs a meditation on the ambiguous duties of the modern British monarchy like The Queen, when you can just cheer for blowing up the British government in V for Vendetta? It’s an across-the-board sweep!
It’s also interesting that we had three dystopias and a fantasy set in the real-world dystopia of fascist-controlled Spain. It’s a dark set of movies, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a real contender for darkest of all. In 1944, a young girl named Ofelia moves in with her new stepfather at an isolated estate in Spain. Ofelia’s mother is pregnant, and her new stepfather is a monstrous captain in the fascist military that has seized control of the country in a long Civil War. The Captain is rooting out one of the last bands of resistance fighters, and much of the movie is concerned with this fight. Ofelia’s best friend in the household, a servant woman named Mercedes, is in love with one of the resistance fighters and secretly aiding them.
Ofelia, horrified by her stepfather and neglected by her mother, discovers/retreats into a fantasy world that she reaches through a labyrinth on the estate. She meets an ancient faun who tells her that she is a lost princess from a fantasy kingdom, and after she completes three tasks, she can return there. The tasks pit Ofelia against funky cgi creatures. At first, her adventures cause some slight friction with her family as she disappears and returns covered in muck, but they seem far removed from the violent conflicts of the region. Slowly, however, they force Ofelia to respond to and confront her stepfather’s cruelties.
I can’t say that I liked this film better than Children of Men or The Prestige, but I do think it’s a fitting winner because it’s essentially about the politics and ethics of fantasy. The film is the brainchild or director/writer Guillermo del Toro, who made some mainstream genre films for the US, including the Hellboy movies. Del Toro grew up steeped in comics and fantasy, and his works are all very much in that world. He’s kind of a fanboy. He also has an incredible imagination, and his designs for some of the creatures are what first captured attention for this film (see the trailer for how).
Guillermo del Toro is as familiar as anyone with old accusations that genre fiction is escapist, and somehow, therefore, less worthy than realistic fiction. Pan’s Labyrinth is a powerful statement on this subject (mush like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which came out a few months later), as we see the importance of escapism in Ofelia’s life, as well as the role that fantasy eventually plays in undermining the captain. It’s a sharp and personal testimonial from del Toro, wrapped up in a beautiful and affecting package. The Hugos could hardly go wrong with this set of nominees, but I’m especially happy with this result.