There comes a time in every filmmaker’s career when it suddenly feels like they’re coasting. They’ve made a name for themselves had some success and challenged themselves in one way or another so now it’s time to take it easy do what they do best and give the people what they want. Perhaps they’re taking a break before they try to do something big again or maybe they’re paying off the debt of a previous flop but the one thing they’re not doing is taking any risks. It’s the same-old same-old and while it might please the fans the real admirers probably won’t be pleased. It happens more often than we’d like to admit but unfortunately it does happen.
This is the case with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs the latest from the director who gave us Amelie Delicatessen and City of Lost Children (the latter two co-directed with Marc Caro). Those films earned him comparisons to Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton but Jeunet proved he had a unique and witty cinematic style that he could call his own and with the international popularity of Amelie audiences everywhere took notice granting this very talented director a lot of leeway to make films in his own style. With his next film 2004’s A Very Long Engagement he decided to stray from the style of his previous films and attempt something more dramatic and though the film was generally well-received Jeunet decided to go back to the well of whimsy with Micmacs with very mixed results. While casual fans should be pleased anyone interested in watching a filmmaker grow artistically (as Jeunet had been) will shrug and leave disappointed.
Like his fellow fantasists Gilliam and Burton Jeunet’s detractors have often described him as a stylist first and storyteller second. I’ve never subscribed to that theory until now — I always felt a connection to his offbeat characters and stories — but with Micmacs he either has failed to help us make that connection or he simply doesn’t care enough himself. Part of the problem is that the film hangs on the flimsiest of plotlines: Homeless man Dany Boon seeks revenge on the feuding weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine that killed his parents and the bullet in his head (a result a drive-by shooting) by teaming up with a rag-tag group of other homeless people all of them with their own set of special skills. A picture like this should hook us in from the very start or it’s never going to get off the ground and Micmacs’ opening already suggests that Jeunet isn’t breaking any new ground here; whimsy for whimsy’s sake will only yield limited results especially without a real story in place. Although it’s filled with a number of the filmmaker’s patented set pieces Micmacs is never as engaging as it would like to be. Numerous sequences that resemble Rube Goldberg meets Warner Brothers cartoons are definitely amusing to watch and offer some trademark Jeunet imagery but there’s no reason to care about what we’re seeing. Boon’s plight should be a moving one but for Jeunet it feels more like an excuse to shoot his regular co-star Dominique Pinon out of a giant cannon.
Pinon’s presence represents another problem with Micmacs: although the film is very well cast almost none of these characters register with the audience. Boon’s homeless “family” is filled with faces out of the Jeunet central casting book but we never really learn who they are nor do we understand why they follow Boon’s character through the lengths that they do. Just because they’re “characters” doesn’t really give them character to portray and though the film is energetically performed by all (with special recognition going to the charming Marie-Julie Baup) they’re just figures for Jeunet’s giant Parisian play set. There’s no question that there are certain pleasures to be found in Micmacs; it looks wonderful with some great production design and cinematography by Tetsuo Nagata and Jeunet’s use of classic Max Steiner music definitely adds to the fun. But these enjoyments are really surface-level only and the film doesn’t have enough weight to hold them up. I certainly wanted to like this one more than I did and I’m sure many of you will disagree with my assessment and enjoy yourselves anyway but Micmacs ultimately isn’t the best example of what Jean-Pierre Jeunet is capable of.
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.