Posted on February 3, 2007 by Flames
I was under whelmed and uninspired by nearly everything I saw in 2006. Genre flicks were particularly bad. Aside from “The Descent,” one of the few notable exceptions, it was a year full of more bad sequels and blasphemous remakes. That said, I was hopeful about Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” as I made my first trip to the theatre this year. However, I decided to leave my expectations at the theatre entrance just in case—a defense mechanism against brilliantly marketed bad movies.
Del Toro has proven his filmmaking acumen with horror films such as “Cronos” and “Mimic,” and big budget smash-ups like “Blade II” and “Hellboy,” but it’s his ability to tell powerful and profound stories without abandoning his horror and fantasy roots, a skill first displayed in “The Devil’s Backbone,” that’s truly impressive. Not only has “Pan’s Labyrinth” renewed my faith in new genre fare, but it has solidified del Toro’s status as a serious auteur whose filmmaking prowess transcends his often dark and frightening material.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” begins in 1944 as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels across the Spanish countryside with her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to an outpost inhabited by Franco’s fascists where Ofelia’s stepfather, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), schemes to eliminate a band of rebel guerillas hiding out in the nearby hills.
Upon her arrival, Ofelia discovers what she believes is a fairy and follows it into a decrepit Labyrinth where she meets Pan (Doug Jones), the faun – a half man, half goat creature who appears both frightening and benevolent. Pan tells Ofelia that she is in fact the princess of a magical kingdom and its inhabitants, but she’s been trapped in the real world, the memories of her royalty revoked. In order to reclaim her rightful throne, she must complete three fantastic and frightening tasks before the next full moon. Soon it becomes clear that Ofelia’s fate in the real world is intimately tied to her fairy tale adventures and nothing is as it seems.
The story weaves back in forth between bleak reality and morbidly spellbinding fantasy. However, the fairy tale sequences in Pan’s Labyrinth, which are both scary and darkly fantastic, function cleverly as a reprieve from the film’s true horror – fascism and its implementers. Del Toro flips our expectations of the film’s two universes and uses the interplay between them to weave an emotionally complex story, often times magical and just as often heart wrenching. Where the Land of Oz is an allegory for Dorothy’s mundane life in the Kansas plains, Pan’s Labyrinth is more of a metaphor for Spain’s continued struggle with fascism long after its Civil War has ended. Events in the Labyrinth reinforce Ofelia’s notions of good, evil, right, and wrong as she’s presented with decisions to make and their subsequent consequences, all of which represent the larger issues looming in the real world.
The cast of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is outstanding. Notable performances include young Ivana Baquero as Ofelia and Maribel Verdú as Mercedes, Capitán Vidal’s servant and secret rebel sympathizer. The bulk of the praise belongs to Doug Jones who plays both the title character, Pan, and another heavily costumed role as Pale-Man, the baby eater. His performances put him on par with fellow actor and “Hellboy” cast mate, Ron Pearlman, and “King Kong” and LOTR’s vet, Andy Serkis. The unique skill these three actors have in common is an ability to convey dynamic performances through complex costumes, make up, and CGI. Jones plays Pan with fine nuances and a controlled, yet unpredictable demeanor that conveys wisdom as well as wildness. Pale-man is a much different and equally effective character whose lone anxiety-inducing sequence is among the most memorable in the movie.
Despite a relatively modest budget, the look of the film is mostly top notch. The make up and visual effects folks fully realize a rich world full of the horrors of torture and war as well as the beauty of tiny fluttering fairies and other oddities. Where Guillermo Del Toro’s early films are CGI-heavy, “Pan’s Labyrinth” uses a mixture of physical effects supplemented with CGI. Some elements such as the film’s fairies are entirely computer-generated, whereas Pan and the Pale-man are great creature designs realized with a combination of wonderful physical make up and great acting. This synthesis results in a believable and organic look to the film that fits both the fairy tale and WWII era aesthetics.
This film works as a period drama and a dark fairy tale and while neither style is dominant, both worlds are awash in fear, and for different reasons. There are several squirm-inducing graphic scenes that will elicit strong visceral reactions from even the most depraved horror hounds. None of these scenes are gratuitous, but this movie is unapologetic in its depictions of pain and violence almost all of which occur in reality rather than fantasy. The men are monstrous and the monsters are sometimes benevolent advisors and at other times they are horrifying-yet-passable tests of will, virtue, and courage.
While Pan’s Labyrinth comes close, it’s not without fault. Capitán Vidal is the dull spot in an otherwise stellar crop of characters. Del Toro seems to have forgotten that Vidal is a human being with a wife and a baby on the way. He wrote Vidal as being so unrelentingly evil, that he’s rendered a bit static.
The movie on the whole is a bit too dark, and not in the good way, but literally as in difficult to see. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the fantasy set pieces and their inhabitants in all their detailed glory. This also made the subtitled dialogue an annoyance for the first time in my movie going experience because of the extreme contrast between the white text and the dark, murky picture behind it.
Nonetheless, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a film that is all too rare these days. It’s like an art house gem infused with the mythic fantasy elements of films like “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Princess Bride,” and “Labyrinth.” With its combination of big-budget horror and fantasy looks, and indie sensibilities, Guillermo del Toro has found a way to say something important about history and the human condition in a wholly creative and unpredictable way.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewer: Jason Thorson
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