Del Toro has induced young creatives like me with films that have continuously elicited the land of dreams that kept him awake as a young boy. From his 1993 mythological and religiously infused work Cronos; to his adaptation of the Dark Horse Comics’ anti-hero Hellboy; to his Oscar-nominated and disobedient fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth; to his 2017 success found in the tender and lyrical romance The Shape of Water (also Oscar-nominated and winner of Best Picture, Best Original Score, and Best Director).
In his career, Del Toro has often tried to manifest stories that often undertake his former childish perspective, tales that speak as an adult looking back on their childhood. He’s done so by reinventing or recapitulating the tone in which fantasy has often been described: the mythical and wondering world of implausibility and conservative messaging. Going as far back as Walt Disney, and his early embarking in animation in what are look back on today as classics of a by-gone era. While still respected and even admired for their craft — even gaining mention in Variety’s amazing and insightful listing of the 100 Most Influential Sequences that Shaped Animation — there’s a noticeable trait that Walt inherited from the 19th-century antecedents of those who came before him with fairy tales that often echoed an antiquated, conservative morality involving a patriarchy value system. In this, Disney limited the very thing’s a fairy tale can achieve, though they’ve certainly evolved since then.
Del Toro was not alone in reimagining the potentiality of a fairy tales’ narrative merit and even elasticity; wonderous creators joined him along the way, such as Neil Gaiman’s work in literary fiction and Hayao Miyazaki’s work in the realm of animation. This is perhaps no more noticeable than in his 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth. The story he tells involves a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother (Ariadna Gil) as they go to live with the hyper-fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi López) five years removed from the Spanish Civil War. While Vidal is busy trying to snuff out the final remnants of rebellion in Spain’s green mountains awaiting the birth of the child beard by Carmen, Ofelia becomes ensnared with a magical quest that begins after a faun tells her she is the lost princess of an underground realm. The film splits itself between two narratives, a mythical quest and a political drama, neither of which become reducible to the other. Nothing is absolute in Del Toro’s story, and their entwining worlds never seem to be authenticated by the other; instead, the film refuses to obey our desires as viewers. Del Toro weaponizes multiplicity throughout the film, a form of narrative approach in which the overlaying plot can be diluted into an interweaving of intertextual references and subjective meaning that makes thematic interpretation a matter of choice. The iconography of some of Labyrinth’s more poetic sequences, like that of the introduction of the Pale Man, can be linked to prior moments in the film, mythological inspirations for the monsters living on the screen before us, and references to real-world events that foreshadow the tragic finale to Ofelia’s quest.
He’s garnered a lot of success in that time as well, delving into bid-budget gambits with major studios, creating works like Pacific Rim and his 2015 period horror Crimson Peak. The Shape of Water functions as a maneuver back towards his art-house beginnings, recontextualizing another film he saw in his most formative years, Jack Arnold’s 1954 classic The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
It’s hard to think of Guillermo Del Toro as a creator simply manifesting branches from a tree that links to his past; the universe he’s created and curated over the course of nearly four decades cannot be dwindled down to that of childhood imagination. His visions seem too grand for even the big screen, and his tales are far too maturated with lived experiences to be exclusively designated for children. It’s an empire of the misshapen and misbegotten, a realm where the real and unreal intermingle, a creator who probes for beauty in the most forgotten of places. A palace I fell in love with a long time ago.