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Do Critics Have the Wrong Idea About ‘Pacific Rim’ Director Guillermo del Toro?

REARVIEW: Variety critics take a second look at the weekend's most talked-about movie

I wanted to love “Pacific Rim” more. I suspect that’s a feeling most film critics had. After all, Guillermo del Toro is one of the good guys, a fantasy director with a poet’s soul. And the reviews were downright weird as a result: The critics tied themselves into knots attempting to give del Toro the benefit of the doubt, trying to find those qualities they respect about the director’s vision in a genre they’ve never much cared for.

“In a sense, ‘Pacific Rim’ winds up being not enough of a Guillermo del Toro movie,” opined Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty, voicing the sentiment just beneath the surface of so many other reviews. But what is a Guillermo del Toro movie?

It’s downright strange to consider how many of the critics referenced the director’s lower-budget, foreign-language Spanish Civil War allegories “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone” in their reviews, as if those were the most representative examples of del Toro’s oeuvre, when “Pacific Rim” actually has so much more in common with del Toro’s early, Weinstein-compromised monster movie “Mimic.”

The explanation is simple: The highbrow set doesn’t especially like movies like “Mimic” — or “Godzilla,” for that matter. Nashawaty’s review went on to complain, “It’s more like a mash-up of ‘Real Steel’ and the ‘Transformers’ pictures,” as if del Toro wouldn’t agree, or wouldn’t take that as a compliment, the same way certain fanboys found a ringing endorsement of the film they wanted “Pacific Rim” to be when Variety’s Justin Chang slammed it as “an extended 3D episode of ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ on very expensive acid.”

In her conflicted Washington Post review, Ann Hornaday sniped, “‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ it most decidedly ain’t,” putting down del Toro’s “vortex of garish visual effects and risibly cartoonish action.” Doesn’t she realize that nearly the entire fighting-robot tradition comes from cartoons? That “Hellboy,” “The Hobbit” (which he developed with Peter Jackson intending to direct) and the aborted H.P. Lovecraft adaptation “At the Mountains of Madness” are as much passion projects for the director as “Cronos” was?

I don’t like all del Toro movies. But I never expected “Pacific Rim” to resemble the three Spanish-language pics of his that I adore. This is a massive-scale mecha-vs.-kaiju showdown, guys. Del Toro has long since established his film-geek bona fides, and there’s no one I trust more to tackle a  guilty-pleasure genre I outgrew somewhere around age 13. That’s when the rubber-suit, clunky-puppet effects of a movie like 1968’s “Destroy All Monsters” stopped being fun. And “Pacific Rim” promised the opportunity to see it done right, in a way adults could also appreciate.

For whatever reason, del Toro doesn’t seem to have faith in his monsters. They attack almost exclusively at night, preferably in the pouring rain. Del Toro put all this attention into designing the creatures (the evidence of which you can see in my Variety colleague David S. Cohen’s making-of book), but then decided to hide them amid quick cutting and camera tricks in the finished film.

I can’t remember a single human character from the Godzilla movies of my youth, but “Pacific Rim” spends a respectable amount of time establishing memorable personalities for the Jaeger pilots, scientists and supporting cast — an impressively diverse crowd who must band together to “cancel the apocalypse” (instead of relying on a lone white hero to save the day, the way American movies typically do).

Rather than focusing on the first giant monster to cross the inter-dimensional portal, the film leaps forward a decade or so into mankind’s standoff against the kaiju to depict the big-daddy battle they hope will end the war. Pause just a moment to consider the ambition here: Whereas most summer movies tentatively attempt to establish a franchise, del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham dive into a full-blown sci-fi scenario determined to tell the best possible story the first time around. As HitFix’s Drew McWeeny pointed out, “Pacific Rim” feels more like the third film in a trilogy than the opening salvo. In that respect, it’s all the Guillermo del Toro movie you could want.

Tell us what you thought: Did the fact “Pacific Rim” was a del Toro movie matter to you, and if so, how did it size up to your expectations?

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