Several months ago I watched both Pan's Labyrinth and Tideland within a few weeks of each other. They have some notable parallels, and are both quite disturbing explorations of the imaginative worlds of children. I meant to write a piece about this, but for various reasons it ended up on the back burner for a long time until I saw an interview with Guillermo del Toro (the director of Pan's Labyrinth) in a documentary about fantasy writing and films, and it reminded me that I'd never got around to it.
I suspect that one of the reasons I dragged my heels a bit was because I found both films deeply disturbing (in different ways), and rather harrowing to watch. Don't get me wrong -- I think they're both great films, but they aren't easy viewing by any means.
Both films feature a young girl who is in a desperately difficult and dangerous situation in real life and escapes into an imaginary world. In Pan's Labyrinth, Ofelia goes with her mother to stay in a country house in the mountains of Spain, where her fascist step-father Captain Vidal is trying to wipe out bands of rebels after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Wandering into an old labyrinth in the garden, Ofelia meets a faun who tells her that she is a Princess of an underground world. If she can complete three difficult and dangerous tasks, she will see her real father again. del Toro's otherworld is not a shiny happy realm fully of friendly fairies, but a scary, dark world which is almost as terrifying as the real world that Ofelia is apparently escaping from.
Tideland (directed brilliantly by Terry Gilliam) is set in present day America, where Jeliza-Rose lives with her junkie parents. Jeliza-Rose expertly cooks up a hit of heroin for her father Noah (Jeff Bridges, playing The Dude gone to the dark side), then curls up in his lap while he trips. In a heartbreaking scene, she pretends that he is reading Alice in Wonderland to her. The film is full of references to that book, and is dark, surreal and disturbing. When Jeliza-Rose's mother ('Queen Gunhilda') dies of an overdose, Noah and his daughter leave her body and run away to the old family homestead, right in the middle of nowhere in Middle America. Ultimately, Jeliza-Rose is left alone with only her imagination and her grubby, disembodied dolls' heads for company. It's worth saying that Jodelle Ferland gives a stunning and completely believable performance as Jeliza-Rose, voicing not only her own character, but the completely different and creepy personalities of her dolls' heads. Eventually, she meets ferocious, witch-like Dell and her brain-damaged brother Dickens, and they form some kind of skewed travesty of a family.
Both films are disturbing on a lot of levels. Children are exposed to horrors that they should be protected from, and are endangered by adults who should be looking after them. I'm usually a very peaceful, non-violent person, but I was shocked by how much I wanted the sadistic Captain Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth to die. And not just die: I'm ashamed to admit that I really wanted him to die horribly. I suspect that this was the director's intention, but it's a very uncomfortable feeling. I watched a lot of Tideland through my fingers, wanting with all my heart to pull Jeliza-Rose out of that terrible place and tell her that no-one could hurt her. In a short piece before the film itself, Terry Gilliam explains that some people are going to hate this film, and some love it, and he's not wrong.
However, what both films show is the resilience and strength of children. Both girls create rich imaginative worlds to go into1 but they aren't running away. Their otherworlds are also dangerous and scary, and it seems as if they are finding ways to cope with and confront their situations on their own terms. Both films are shot from the point of view of the innocence of the child, though we can't help seeing their worlds through adult eyes.
As I've said, both are excellent films, and if you're feeling brave and strong, both are worth watching. You'll need a strong stomach, particularly for some scenes in Tideland. I won't give anything away, but one scene very nearly spoiled my future enjoyment of The Big Lebowski, but The Dude abides, man, The Dude abides.
1 In Pan's Labyrinth, the question of whether the creatures in the labyrinth exist or are part of Ofelia's imagination is left rather ambiguous. In Tideland, it's more obvious, though Jeliza-Rose's real world is so surreal that there's barely any difference between the two. ↑