[I missed both of these films in the theaters, heard all the buzz around them, and just now got around to watching them. I can understand the excitement over both, but wanted to write about why they both bothered me.]
Children of Men is a science fiction film close to Soderbergh's underrated Solaris, in terms of keeping both the world realistic and believable, and focusing on characters, rather than philosophical ideas and special effects, a welcome relief. It is also exquisitely directed -- the single long take for the attack on the car in the woods is the showcase, and deservedly so. Pan's Labyrinth creates a unique tone, expertly moving between a weird fairy world and fascist Spain in 1944; the character design is a major point of praise, again deservedly so.
Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro and Children of Men director Alphonse Cuaron -- both Mexican -- have directed mainstream American sci-fi and fantasy films: del Toro did Hellboy and Cuaron was responsible for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Uzbekistan (Azkaban, whatever). Both Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth gain power from the same source -- they take traditionally escapist genres -- science fiction and fantasy -- and ground them in as real a world as can be thought up.
It is how both Pan's Labyrinth and Children of Men link the real world to escapist genres that leads me to the conclusion that they are both overrated. Both films are rooted in a deeply pessimistic world view -- most people in both films are sell-outs, brutalizers, and ideologues. Importantly, after two hours of almost uninterrupted unpleasantness, both films have happy endings (in both an infant is ostensibly saved) that are undercut by all of the previous scenes. The boat arrives to save the first human born in 18 years -- but haven't we seen in the course of the film that most people are monsters? How much hope do we have that the people on the boat at the end of Children of Men will be better human beings than everyone we have left behind? Ofelia is reunited with her parents in a beatific fairy heaven where she is a princess at the end of Pan's Labyrinth -- but she has died horribly, possibly believing in some kind of delusion. The guerrilla's will raise her half brother -- but do we really think they are better people than the regime they have just toppled? As adults they are as cut off from the child's ability to perceive magic as surely as Ofelia's mother was (it is not just Nazis that cannot see magic). And of course Franco died peacefully in his sleep long after the film takes place -- this war is nowhere near over. The film does not address this point directly either, but fairy worlds, if you believe the fairy world is real (and I think that is best) are usually very bad for children -- as in Labyrinth with David Bowie, the girl is supposed to save her brother from the fairly creatures of the Labyrinth (as Ofelia does), but it is no place for a little girl to live. An old woman in the film -- and old women in these films always know what is really going on -- even says that fauns are not to be trusted; and the faun does not seem at all trustworthy. You could argue whether the end of either Pan's Labyrinth or Children of Men is supposed to be ironic but to me the endings feel very much like the end of Kafka: The Musical, a spoof in an episode of the television show Home Movies -- as Kafka is raised to heaven a booming voice declares, in a super-friendly but faux-stately voice "Hello Franz Kafka! My name is God! I think you are going to like it here!"
Both Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth have their story to tell -- the hero's journey to learn to love again, to care about a cause again, and to get a child to safety; the little girl who saves her brother and makes her way to her proper destiny as a fairy princess. But both Children of Men and Pan's Labyrinth are disingenuous. As Slavoj Zizek points out in his commentary on the DVD, the hero's journey in Children of Men appears to be the point, and the world he travels in secondary, but it is the other way around: what Cuaron is really interested in is holding a glass up to nature, as it were, and showing us our own ugly face in the "background" -- the world -- of the film; the hero's journey is merely an excuse. This is why his story is so dully told -- the story structure of Children of Men has an obstacle-1-obstacle-2-obstacle-3-and-so-on structure; it could be much shorter, or much longer, which is not the right way to tell a story. Similarly it is the depiction of fascist Spain that is delToro's aim in Pan's Labyrinth -- the fantasy elements of Ofelia's story serve only to bring home the brutality of Spain under Franco more starkly than a fully realistic film could -- these monsters are not just killing children, they are killing the very spirit of imagination itself. This is why, if you have seen DVD box, or a commercial for the film, you have seen all the amazing character designs -- there are only two.
I was disappointed to discover in each film a pedestrian design, a subordination of the imagination and storytelling to a crummy point about a world that is ugly, and a people that are sad.
That monster with the eyes in his hands sure was cool though, and Children of Men had a hell of a tracking shot.