This is Part II of what is sure to be a brief series on Movies About Girls in Very Similar Circumstances Who Reach Totally Different Outcomes. One light, one dark, and thus they form a natural cycle. This time around, the girls in question travel to a new home and discover a fantasy land there. As well as firing their imaginations, these new worlds present the young ladies with a series of tests, challenging their developing capacity for courage, creativity, trust, compassion, integrity, and self-control. These coming-of-age tales cherish a belief that children have the tools they need to meet these challenges, as well as the gift of sensing a spiritual dimension to life that is often invisible to adults.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away unfolds as a series of fables about working hard, helping others, and finding the good in your enemies. The main character, Chihiro, discovers a spirit realm in an abandoned amusement park. Tasked with saving her parents, who have been transformed into pigs after eating too much food, Chihiro finds herself a persecuted outsider at a bathhouse for gods. Her willingness to help creatures of every shape and size is what guides her through this strange society. Through every test, she must cling to her identity as magical forces threaten to swallow up and enslave her. It’s “coming of age” as the blossoming of childhood potential with a new acceptance of responsibility.
Computer animation has conditioned audiences to expect casual magic, but I always get a rush from returning to hand-drawn films. There’s a sense of life at the margins and room to breathe, in palpable contrast to the sterility of so much CGI. Miyazaki’s art, in particular, is a clear expression of his unique personality and concerns. The style juxtaposes extremes: small observations and wild fantasy, exaggerated emotions and subtle cues. The subtlety is what stands out the most to this American, so used to animated films that feel the need to be aggressively eye-popping. This film is a visual feast, with wonders big and small: creatures made of soot, creatures made of paper, submerged railroad tracks, a sludge monster, a wolf-like dragon. They all get their due, make no mistake. But this isn’t a frenetic adventure. It’s a film about melancholy that matures into peace. Victory is achieved, as often as not, by sitting quietly with an adversary. And the filmmaking possesses a delicate brilliance to match. Note the almost imperceptible Vertigo dolly-zoom effect as Chihiro looks down the outer staircase of the bathhouse. Or the potent emotional beats of characters with limited expression, like those soot creatures or the specter No-Face. Not only is this film about the transition from childhood to adulthood, but it works perfectly as a piece of entertainment that bridges those two groups.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth opens very similarly to Spirited Away — a car ride to a new home — but with differences that, though they seem small at first, will set the film on a completely different track. The story takes place in Spain in 1944. At the same time that the Allies were fighting fascism elsewhere, it was forcefully taking hold in that country. Our heroine, Ofelia, travels with her pregnant mother to live with her new stepfather, an army captain whose mission is to snuff out all resistance to the Franco regime. Ofelia discovers a faun in a labyrinth who tells her that she is the reincarnation of a princess and that she must pass three magical tests to reclaim her throne.
Pan’s Labyrinth presents its fantasy elements in a fairly straightforward manner, as a kid’s-eye view of adult brutality. Gradually, over the course of the film, reality and fantasy become one. The climax, which recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, brings them face-to-face, although as always the adult doesn’t notice, and it’s up to the child to reconcile them. If Spirited Away is a film without real villains, Pan’s Labyrinth compensates for that by giving us bone-chilling monsters. Whether real or imagined, they’re all lethal. Del Toro’s fantasy consists mostly of Goyaesque horrors, and the parallel world is scarcely more colorful than the washed-out palette of reality. Ofelia comes of age just as surely as Chihiro did, but her maturation comes at a terrible price. The film feels much more agnostic about the supernatural than Spirited Away. The conclusion can be seen profitably as a literal “happily ever after,” or as a delusion attempting to ascribe deeper meaning to a life cut short. I think it’s to del Toro’s credit that the film leaves room for either possibility. Myths and fairy tales don’t need to be real to be true.
These films take their place in a lineage that stretches back for centuries and continues to resonate in each new incarnation. Fantasy can teach us things about ourselves in a highly entertaining and ennobling way. Fairy tales remind us that children can’t be sheltered forever. At some point, even they must face death, or (worse?) a life of disappointment. A life where the creaking of a house at night is not the sign of an evil presence prowling around; where a stone face is just a statue, not a portent; where the financial cost of something often becomes an overriding concern. When Christ admonished his followers to have the faith of a child, he was acknowledging that children have an ability to see significance in things that bigger people tend to overlook. The challenge of growing up is finding a way to keep that sense of awe even as we discover that the world isn’t as magical as we had once assumed.