Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Pan's Labyrinth is both enchanting and scarring. It's an engaging dark fantasy as well as an emotional historical drama. It also happens to be Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro's finest work to date, followed closely by The Devil's Backbone. Backbone would make a perfect companion piece to Labyrinth, since both films explore odd and /or supernatural elements that counterbalance real-world horrors derived from the Spanish Civil War. While Backbone was concerned with a group of children dealing with ghosts and gold-hungry cads, Pan's Labyrinth is the tale of one girl (Ofelia, played brilliantly by Ivana Baquero) who seeks solace from her painful life through encounters with otherworldly creatures and a number of noble quests.
Some of these creatures are frightening (especially the very Clive Barker-esque child-eater whose eyes are centered in the palms of its creepy, vampiric hands), yet they all pale in comparison to the biggest monster of the film – the all too human Captain Vidal (Sergi López). The Captain is obsessed with fathering a son, and is essentially using Ofelia's sickly yet beautiful mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) as a breeding facility. Carmen's love is never reciprocated, and since Ofelia is neither a boy nor of blood relation to the Captain, he treats her with disdain when he's not ignoring her existence altogether.
But being a bad husband isn't where this guy's villainy ends. He coldly murders a local rabbit hunter by caving in his skull with repeated blows from a bottle. Yet unlike a traditional serial killer, Vidal takes no delight in this act. He commits murder as if it were akin to bringing out the garbage. When he realizes that his victims were innocent of being spies, he scolds his men for wasting his time. He's a bad, bad man. And he wears leather gloves, which makes him even badder.
Vidal's biggest problem lies in the surrounding woods, which are rife with anti-fascist rebels. The surrounding area is also home to various outlandish elements that most people overlook, with the exception of Mercedes (Y Tu Mama Tambien's Maribel Verdú), who prepares meals for the Captain despite a familial allegiance to the rebellion. Ofelia isn't concerned with uprisings, and her child's eyes immediately seek out a strange stone icon during a road trip to Vidal's lair. A large insectoid creature with a lengthy thorax emerges from the pagan-looking bas-relief and befriends her before later transforming into the more kid-friendly form of a faerie.
The sprite leads Ofelia out of her mother's creaky new bedroom and into the creepy stone labyrinth right outside. A stairwell at the center of the maze leads to a moonlit, subterranean grotto, populated by a nameless treelike entity identified as a mythological faun. (Doug Jones, who portrayed Abe Sapien in Del Toro's Hellboy) The faun recognizes Ofelia as a reincarnation of one Princess Moanna, and entrusts her with a magical book and three tasks to perform so that she may prove to the underworld that she hasn't devolved into a mere mortal over the years. If she passes all tests, she'll get to rejoin her father and live forever. Pretty tempting for a girl with a dead dad and a human wolverine masquerading as a stepfather.
It's during these quests that the film's fantastic elements take flight, evoking similarities to Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, Jim Henson's Labyrinth and Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (with a bit of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's City of Lost Children thrown in for good measure). And while these are visually splendid treats, they're not without their own elements of grotesqueness and danger. A visit inside the stump of a gnarled old tree yields numerous fist-size roaches and a nasty old frog. A trip into the realm of a slumbering flesh-eater results in the decapitation of at least one faerie and a heart-pounding race to escape. Even the kindly old faun becomes scolding and menacing once Ofelia fails to complete the tasks exactly as ordered. We want to believe that this is all a good thing, but it's tough to trust in the faun completely. Especially when other people specifically point out that such creatures are Satanic tricksters that will lead you to your doom.
As Ofelia grows closer to achieving immortality, Vidal comes closer to sniffing out traitors in his own midst, and finally snares a living captive left behind following a grisly fracas with the insurgents. Whereas the bottle-bashing scene portrayed Vidal using violence much as an impatient child would, here he revels in his ability to torture, and like many great screen villains goes on to explain just how horrible the victim's fate will be should he refuse to spill the beans. Thankfully, the oppressive world of the film is brightened a bit by some much-needed scenes of retribution. Del Toro will only punish his audience so far before allowing them relief, though he definitely doesn't delight in full-on ‘happy' endings. Pan asks you to draw your own conclusions about its finale, and will no doubt spawn many Total Recall-style discussions amongst exiting theatergoers.
It's amazing that this is for all intents and purposes a foreign independent film, since its rich, visual splendor has drawn so many comparisons to mega-budget beasts such as the Lord of the Rings series. Just as was the case with The Devil's Backbone, Guillermo Navarro's cinematography is jaw-dropping work. From the steely, blue moonlit scenes rife with rich, detailed blacks to the splendid, golden hues of the fantasy sequences, most of the film's frames would be suitable for hanging on your wall. Fellow Del Toro returnee Javier Navarrete also contributes a beautiful score that hinges on a haunting, melancholy lullaby.
Not only does Del Toro reuse crewmembers, but numerous themes and visual elements from his previous films as well. There is once again more vintage phonograph equipment. The maze-like symbol that soaks up Rasputin's blood in Hellboy is mirrored in the floor carving in the faun's grotto. There's of course the strong thematic/historical ties to The Devil's Backbone, but he also focuses on the importance of clocks and timepieces. His first film was called Cronos, and subsequent pictures also dealt with the imagery of watches. In Hellboy, a murderous Nazi automaton sustained life by winding up a clock-heart device with a key lodged in its chest.
Vidal's entire life is ruled by clocks – even when we first meet him he's annoyed at the lateness of his new family's arrival. We later learn that his father's demise also tied into the tale of a stopwatch. Vidal feels the pressures of time in that his biological clock is also ticking. He wants an heir and he wants one yesterday. There's even a timepiece motif to his living chambers, which contain a series of gigantic wooden mill cogs in the background that resemble larger-than-life watch gears. He's the antithesis of Ofelia, who is an innocent supposedly heading for an existence in which time matters not one whit.
One potential problem lays not with the film, but with the marketing department of New Line Cinema. They've been pimping the fact that it's been on over apparently eight billion critics' ‘best of' lists (Sorry, but it came out in Hartford in 2007, so it's gotta wait for inclusion on mine) as well as numerous claims lauding it as high fantasy that outdoes The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. In reality, the Peter Jackson film this should be most compared with is the aforementioned Heavenly Creatures, since the fantasy elements of Pan's Labyrinth barely add up to thirty percent of the total screen time.
It's a historical drama with fantasy elements, not the other way around. That's not a bad thing by any means, but just be wary of what the suits are selling you. They're also using the ‘best of' and ‘wowee' ad spin to skirt around the fact that the film is in Spanish with English subtitles. They're trying to fool as many people as they can into the theater. I prefer subtitles on foreign films (actually, it's more accurate to say I hate dubs with a passion), but be prepared to hear a lot of people grousing about this bait and switch after the fact.But don't hate on them too much. They're looking for your money, but they're also doing you a favor. Plenty of people that would have passed on something like this are now given the opportunity to see an amazing piece of adult fairy tale storytelling with a impressive roster of incredible performances, no matter what the spoken language is filmed in. Here's hoping Del Toro will continue bouncing back to personal films like this in between burly Hollywood actioners such as Blade II and the Hellboy series. He's the only filmmaker who could have conjured this tale, and I thank him kindly for doing so.