Guillermo del Toro explains the biggest mistake people make in telling stories for children

Guillermo del Toro has directed some of the coolest movies of the past decade or so, including Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy, plus the upcoming monster/robot smackdown Pacific Rim. But he's also gotten into producing animated films for kids, including Kung-Fu Panda and the upcoming Rise of the Guardians.

We were lucky enough to get a chance to talk one-on-one with del Toro about Rise of the Guardians, and he explained to us why children's stories need to be dark, because "kids are neurotic."

What's the biggest mistake people make in telling stories about children, or for children?

Well, I think that one of the things is to actually try and create a sense of darkness in the tale. A lot of people just make this sanitized super happy-go-lucky, "bright sunshine and clouds" type of childhood movies. And you really need an element of the dark in it. In the case of Kung Fu Panda 2, we really came up with a psychotic, sociopathic villain. In the case of [Rise of the] Guardians, we have Pitch, which is an incredibly sophisticated and articulate guy that tries to control your fear. In the case of Puss in Boots, we had a bad guy who was Humpty, who was capable of changing and capable of doing a good action at the end. He was incredibly neurotic.

Guillermo del Toro explains the biggest mistake people make in telling stories for children

And I think that people don't acknowledge that kids have all these sides. Kids are neurotic, kids deal with fear, kids are confronted by really hostile impulses from the adults around them and the other kids, and you know, movies should acknowledge all this and create these fables that help them deal with those things.

Do kids' movies have the best villains?

I don't know that I'd say [that]. Hitchcock used to say, "The better the villain, the better the film." And Hitchcock's bad guys, in some cases, are formidable. The James Bond villains can be fantastic. And superhero movies are only as good as the bad guy.

What's the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?

It's a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.

Is there a limit to how dark a movie for kids can get? And do you think animated films are getting closer to classic children's books, and less like cartoons?

Guillermo del Toro explains the biggest mistake people make in telling stories for children

One of the master of children's fiction is one of the guys who acknowledged fully the darkness of the world — that is, Roald Dahl. He did really brutal passages in The BFG. There's really very, very creepy and violent [stuff] in The Witches. And so on, and so forth. He really scared a lot of [kids] from that side. He is the reason why... when the line is crossed, and then it doesn't function as a children's story any more — it can become an adult fairytale. It can become a fairytale that adults can enjoy. And I think there are some of those, particularly in the Eastern cultures. Like 1001 Nights — a lot of those stories are very harrowing. And people forget that a lot of the tales that the Grimm Brothers collected, they were actually meant to be told to adults. People think, "Oh, they were children's stories" — [but] not in the beginning. They were meant to be told to adults, to entertain them. But yes, to answer your question: It can get too dark.

That was one of the challenges with [Rise of the] Guardians. We wanted to keep that balance at all times. It would still be fun, it would still be a ride.

How did you get involved in this project? What appealed to you about it?

I creative consulted on Kung Fu Panda and Megamind, and I was an executive producer on Puss in Boots. I really like very much to explore fable and storytelling, and I guess as a director, I like horror — but as a producer, I like getting involved in other types of stories. I have produced social dramas in Mexico and Latin America. I am producing these animated movies in others. My producing has helped me to stay curious.

Santa Claus is an marketing icon. He's used to sell stuff. But this movie turns him back into a fairytale character again.

It makes each of them into guys that are really passionate and crazy about what they do.

So how do you go about turning an advertising icon back into a fairytale character?

Guillermo del Toro explains the biggest mistake people make in telling stories for children

We went for the essence of what the mythology was, and tried to make them more elemental myths. We didn't want to make them just 19th or 20th century myths. For example, with the Easter Bunny, [we wanted] to give a sense that he is a protector of Earth and renewal and hope. And North, he is basically like a force of nature, like a human tornado. He is unstoppable and full of strength, and he's not at all this jovial rosy cheeked soft-drink guy. He's been in a couple of brawls, he's capable of handling a sword. He's not by any means a nasty guy, but he's a much more strong and powerful figure. He's more magnificent, in a way.

The relationship between Jack Frost and the other Guardians is sort of about the Hero's Journey, because he's joining them and becoming a hero. But he's also teaching them about children again, because they've forgotten about children.

Guillermo del Toro explains the biggest mistake people make in telling stories for children

His relationship with each of them is different. He has an almost father and son relationship with North. And he has a very pointed enmity with the Easter Bunny. He has a sort of a flirtatious, warm relationship with Tooth. And he has a very warm relationship with Sandy. And even with Pitch, he is very tempted by Pitch. Pitch is very close to who Jack could be. In essence, they are of the same ilk, except that Jack chooses to articulate who he is through a social way, rather than the antisocial way that Pitch does it.

And were you guys thinking of this as a metaphor for creativity? Their power comes from children, but also from the things they create.

That's a really good way of seeing it. We didn't see it like that. The way we saw it is, they represent a different value of what it means to be human. But the way you're saying it is great, because it's basically Jack comes in and meets those great artists, that have not met their audience in a long time.

They've just been rushing around. That happens to creative people a lot.

Yes, it does. [Laughs]

I really loved the visuals in the film. It doesn't feel like a cartoon at all. It has a really nice visual element.

I thought that the look of the light and the texturing of the movie was closer to an illustrated book. There is a huge richness in the world of Bunny, when you go into that place of ancient stones and moss and insects and prairies underground — it's really beautiful and it really has a very painterly style, almost.

In a lot of ways, this is almost like a superhero team-up movie. What makes a good superhero team?

Guillermo del Toro explains the biggest mistake people make in telling stories for children

Yeah, we thought about it only in the sense of the dyanmics of the characters. Peter [Ramsay] always had in mind that this was a superhero movie — but he didn't mean it in the sense of giving the characters superpowers. He only wanted the dynamic that comes from the best superhero teams, where... some of them don't don't like each other, they don't work well with each other, they learn to work past their differences.

Rise of the Guardians is in theaters on Friday.