Fairy tales tackle both sides of fantasy

'Pan's Labyrinth' is scary while 'Nanny McPhee' is kid-friendly

Fairy tales in cinema have always excelled at two things: enchanting audiences and scaring the pants off them.

“Pan’s Labyrinth,” a violent fantasy set in postwar fascist Spain, definitely belongs to the latter type. “It is dark and scary, but so was that time in history,” notes production designer Eugenio Caballero about the R-rated story of a young girl who finds a labyrinth inhabited by mysterious and terrifying creatures behind her stepfather’s home.

Caballero worked closely with director Guillermo del Toro to create two parallel worlds: “a real one, where we used lots of grays and greens and sharp angles, and the fantasy one, which only she can see, where everything’s more rounded and organic, and the colors are warmer with lots of golds and reds.”

To further emphasize the film’s scary look, Caballero also used “lots of Celtic and Romanesque images I’d researched. As we built every set and prop from scratch, that gave us complete control over the final look,” a look he admits “may be too intense for kids.”

At the other extreme is “Nanny McPhee,” a more traditional fairy tale in the “Mary Poppins” vein, where the only violence is that used by production designer Michael Howells on the film’s extreme color palette.

“The look and color of the film was crucial,” Howells says of the kid-friendly tale. “People always recall childhood as bigger and more colorful, so we used a lot of extra-large wallpaper designs and tons of clashing, almost acid colors to heighten that sense.”

For Mrs. Quickly’s cottage, Howells combined flowery pinks and sharp greens, “until it’s almost overpowering and you feel that character’s obsession with roses and romance.”

“We aimed for a sort of idealized picture-book Victorian look,” he notes, “but we took some liberties with it, to make it this kind of timeless fantasy world.”

For “Miss Potter” production designer Martin Childs (“Shakespeare in Love”), the challenge was to bring out “both the light and dark sides” of his subject, famed “Peter Rabbit” author Beatrix Potter. “The tendency is to make it all light and frothy, but she wasn’t sentimental about animals, and there are plenty of very unpleasant aspects to her stories, like rabbits being baked in pies,” he notes.

Potter’s story is also marked by tragedy. “We wanted to show Beatrix as a real woman, and there was also a lot of conflict with her mother, so her mother’s world is very pretty and stylish, while Beatrix’s is based on the colors of nature.”

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