Jeremy Wickett and I decided to have a conversation about Pan’s Labyrinth and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; two fantasy movies set during World War Two, but from the point of view of young children. One set in Franco-era Spain, also dealing with the realities of the harsh right wing government (Pan) and the other focusing in on four siblings who are being evacuated from London to the country side (Lion…).
I have some issues Jeremy, with Lion… and one of them is the children. Another thing that is incredibly annoying is the windows aren’t blacked out, which of course all were at the time. The children keep looking out of them. This I feel is a major problem as it would be a great juxtaposition between the darkness of their world and the bright white Narnia.
Jeremy: Annoyed is a good word for it. Insulted is the word I’d use. I hate, hate, hate that scene. The sirens are blaring and we see bomb after bomb drop on London. Yet it seems like the family is doing their damnedest to do anything but go to the freakin’ bomb shelter. It’s all manufactured to have some action and suspense right at the start, yet it fails to generate any emotion at all. The next sequence at the train station works, and that’s where the movie should have started. I bet Disney didn’t trust American audiences to get that the kids were in danger unless they were five feet away from an explosion.
The kids are alright to me. The actor playing Peter is a piece of dry toast. Lucy’s the heart of the story and Georgie Henley is one of the few charming things here for me.
Gabby: Even when they get to the countryside the windows have light pouring in. Insulting is appropriate as any person who lived through the war here in England would probably be quite insulted as well as those the film is assuming have no concept of what is happening without some special effects bravado. It makes what actually happened in the cities during that period feel inconsequential. The film should have definitely tried to make what the Pevensies have gone through and are going through a bigger part of their characters in a subtle but noticeable way. I love the girls. It is the two boys I have the big problem with. Piece of dried toast, perfect description! Both Georgie Henly and Anna Poppelwell are so charming and I think do bring that subtlety of what they are going through to the film. The two boys however make it very hard for us to feel anything towards them.
Jeremy: Watching the film again, I was surprised their parents aren’t mentioned again once they enter Narnia. One of the things missing for me is that the kids are playing a waiting game to see if their parents make it through the war. Then add to that, the film has no problem putting them front and center on a battlefield for the overly long final battle, which looks like an amateur weekend re-enactment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. On the other hand we have Ivana Baquero in Pan’s Labyrinth, who is tremendous as Ofelia. She sells the character’s dread, which makes that movie work. It’s a reminder that Del Toro invests the same attention on his actors as he does his visuals.
Gabby: That battle really is a mess. I think it is strange that the parents don’t come into it at least a small bit. I think the fact that the film completely loses its parallels with the war raging on outside is such a shame, whereas Pan’s uses it so beautifully. Ivana Baquero really is wonderful. I think we feel completely empathetic towards her and she feels so naturally expressive with her face and eyes. Toro really does invest in all elements of the film; we get a real sense of character in Pan’s.
Jeremy: The children in both films are the “chosen one[s].” But I feel Ofelia earns her reward by what she chooses to do (and not do) throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, including her ultimate sacrifice. While in Lion…, the Pevensies kind of show up, get shuffled around the board, and then largely succeed only in not dying during the climax, thanks to Aslan showing up at the last minute and the magical gifts from Father Christmas.
We haven’t mentioned that Father Christmas appears out of nowhere and gives the Pevensies drugs and weapons. He’s pretty much a holly, jolly arms dealer. Going back a bit to the children’s performances in Lion, I don’t think Skandar Keynes is entirely to blame for his performance as Edmund. The movie – and, if I remember correctly, the novel – want Edmund to be both a typical younger brother trying to assert himself and a real son of a bitch. Keynes comes off as being OK with Edmund being a bit of a bastard.
Gabby: Yes, Edmund is not at all appealing in the book either. I think there is such a problem though, as you say, we don’t get a sense of why these children deserve their royal treatment. Is it simply because they are human? I really dislike the ‘daughter of Eve’ and ‘son of Adam’. That religious symbolism is present in the book and is quite overbearing in both the film and book. You mention both Santa and Aslan which are two key examples of the Christian undertone not really undertones though and more like overt statements) with Aslan as the Jesus figure. Santa however just seems to be giving them things so they don’t have to try. Do the children have a character arc? I think then, as you point out, that my problem doesn’t lie in the performances but the characters. What are your thoughts on the religious themes and do you think that is present in Pan’s as well?
Jeremy: Let me start by saying that my opinions of Lion, the first Narnia story, are colored by the later novels, which reflect C.S. Lewis’ unflattering opinions on women and other cultures. Even as an agnostic with complicated feelings on religion, I find nothing to really dislike or be offended by in this Narnia story, though I do find it terribly limiting, since there’s no way to interpret it as anything but Christian allegory. It’s odd that Aslan is so obviously a stand-in for Christ, yet Father Christmas shows up. My first thought when I saw Father Christmas was, “Hey, aren’t you muscling in on this Aslan guy’s racket?” But yes, now that I think of it, I do find it troubling that the most important thing the wardrobe kids do is put their faith in Aslan.
And it doesn’t give a lot for the characters to do since they never doubt Aslan, while notions such as doubt and the moral questioning of authority are at the heart of Pan’s Labyrinth. True, that puts Pan’s Labyrinth more on my personal wavelength – but it also makes for a richer story with real conflict outside of “the good guys have to stop the bad guys.” I wouldn’t say Pan’s has religious themes, exactly, although you can tell del Toro is a lapsed Catholic. It’s more humanistic than anything else, but no matter what beliefs or baggage del Toro or the audience brings to the table, it finds a universality the Narnia stories lack.
Gabby: Is it simply, in Narnia, the message is believe in Christ and no matter how much of an arse you are, you will be a King in heaven?
Jeremy: That’s pretty much Edmund to a tee.
Gabby: What the hell is the crowning ceremony? Their names are ridiculous, Peter the magnificent?! ‘Once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen’… of Narnia? How long did it take to think up that pearl of pearls? Anyway, *coughs*. I actually think that a lot of his attitudes towards women can be seen in The Lion, Witch & Wardrobe. I mean if you just look at the film, we get the valiant for Lucy, which she is, but Susan gets the title of ‘the gentle’. Contrastingly, the boys get all the credit with much grander titles such as the magnificent and the just. So it is either be a powerful woman, who happens to be an evil Ice Queen who brutally tortures and kills people or to be a girl who screams in a tree and accepts status as gentle when she was just being a badass with a bow and arrow not 5 minutes ago.
What are your thoughts on the films idea of gender roles? I think doubt plays such a key role to Pan’s as well, and that for me is far more human. Allowing negative emotions and feelings seep into Narnia would have been so much more engaging. Random side note, I will give a shout out to Jesus Christ Superstar for a second as it actually allows for questioning and doubt of Christ’s actions. Questions are always going to engage more than being force fed answers. As you say it makes Pan’s richer as no one is black and white, so we can be involved in the complexities of the fantasy world as well as the characters. What do you think apart from the moral questioning brings that humanity to the characters? Do you think there is any significance with the lead being a girl?
Jeremy: Ouch. I was playing with my infant son through the last half, and I didn’t notice their titles. That’s doubly insulting since Peter is lucky his title isn’t ‘Peter, the Lucky His Ass Isn’t on the Curb for Being a Traitorous Git’. You are right on all counts there. They made an attempt at making the women stronger in the film adaption, but they didn’t quite get there. As to Ofelia, that’s an organic choice coming from a man with two daughters and the fairy tale nature of the story. One of the nicer touches in Pan’s is that Vidal keeps underestimating the civilians around him, especially female characters like Mercedes.
Gabby: Definitely, a girl being the lead really does feel like an organic choice. It certainly does fit with the fairy tale elements of the film. I think it also ties with what you just mentioned the underestimation that Vidal has towards females. It is the one that he underestimates the most that ends up being the hero of the film. Talking of the fairy tale nature of the film, what do you make on the dark twist on fairy tales that features so heavily? It is such a beautiful and mysterious world full of fear and wonder that we can understand why Ofelia is drawn into it.
Jeremy: That world makes sense to her – especially if it’s a world she invented for herself, which I don’t think is the case. The fairy world comes off as being callously indifferent – almost like the order of the natural world – but it has rules, risks, and rewards she understands, at least more than the “real” atrocities around her.
Gabby: She has a learning experience where she grows into being brave by standing up for herself and what is right. It is that character arc that is missing in Narnia and it allows for it to feel as though she has earned the reward. There is a strong sense of loyalty in the film and also the threat of betrayal. We can see how the characters such as Mercedes have a cause they believe in so we know what they are fighting for. We never get that with Narnia. What do you think on Pan’s Labyrinth’s take on the post civil war era and the way that feeds into the characters’ actions?
Jeremy: While I don’t completely buy the cute, cuddly act from the creatures in Narnia (seriously, a hundred years without Christmas; I’d break like a cheap pair of headphones), they still have hope. I’m not too up to speed on the Spanish Civil War, but the story had to be set after the war was over, when our protagonists have nothing left to lose. Desperation, not hope, guides the protagonists’ actions in Pan’s, which makes it believable, even if it’s a tougher pill to swallow.
Gabby: Desperation, that’s it, it is so important to the whole tone of the film that makes the fantasy elements so enticing. I agree about the cuteness of Narnia. It is strange but I have no sense of wonder in that world, I don’t really want to visit it. I think it could have been more established that these children have had nothing but fear and darkness then that hope and light in Narnia would be more magical. Both films have a figure of fear. Pan’s has Vidal and Narnia the witch. What do you think they represent and how effectively do they play into the films? I love Swinton and think that could have been a good casting decision if only they had given her more of a character to work with. Maybe I’m wrong but it could be interesting to play her more like Annie Wilkes in Misery.
Jeremy: That role needs something else. Megalomania for megalomania’s sake is nice and all, but you either need to sink your teeth in and relish it – and neither happens. But I find Vidal fascinating, even if he’s a little more thinly drawn than I remember. He’s definitely psychotic, but he’s so damaged and caught up in his family’s legacy. I would never sympathize with him, but he has a perverted need for family and honor, and that puts him a few shades away from pitiable. Lopez hits every beat. He’s great (watch Dirty Pretty Things, as well, to see him be all kinds of slimy) – and like I said before, you can tell he’s working with Del Toro to achieve a specific performance. Your Annie Wilkes analogy is fantastic. The coiled villain you’re never sure when will strike is always fascinating to watch.
Gabby: I love the quiet authority Lopez has. I concur with that sense of family honour provides a weight to his performance especially when he tells the story of his watch. I love so many elements of Pan’s such as the cinematography and the performances we mentioned, as well as Maribel Verdu’s quite strength and desperation. Are there any other elements of Pan’s and Narnia that caught your attention? And what do you think of the legacy nature of fairytale? I think it applies to both stories but Narnia needs another attempt at some point. Pan’s however will weave its magic for a long time. Any final thoughts on the two films?
Jeremy: I noticed in Pan’s Labyrinth this time that the three fairies who greet Ofelia at the end look like the fairies the Pale Man ate. Which makes me question, if the fairy world is real, was she ever in danger at all?
We always need fairy tales. We need allegory to make sense of the world, specifically to challenge us and make us re-evaluate our outlook on things. Pan’s Labyrinth does this, and while I need to read the books again, I don’t think that’s something in Narnia’s DNA. Finally, I recommend making a double feature of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II. Hellboy II isn’t as tight a story and lacks Pan’s resonance, but in some ways, it’s even richer – both visually and thematically – than Pan’s Labyrinth. It also features my favorite scene of all time: Ron Perlman drinking Tecate and singing Barry Manilow.
Gabby: I have only recently watched Hellboy II and thought it was great, visually striking and a lot to think about. The world of Narnia does have something to offer with that idea of a magical world hiding in your closet. That idea has always seemed to capture the minds of young children. I also was a rather big fan of the book when I was younger as it did give me a sense of wonder and imagination. I think that is what needs to be brought out more if ever there is another interpretation. I am definitely of the same mind about the idea that there will always be a need for fairy tales. I love the way you put that allegory, and in a greater sense fantasy, helps us makes sense of the world around us. It is a twist on what we see every day, which helps give us a different perspective as well as an ability to connect with the stories and that is timeless.