Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil
Plot: Trapped with her fascist stepfather, Ofelia (Baquero) is offered a way out by a fairy and a faun, who demand that she completes three dangerous tasks to come with them to another world.
You cannot help but ask the question of Del Toro’s most talked about movie: who is this film for? As far as genres go, the most obvious one to go with is a modern fairy tale, the narrative structure very similar to something that an animated Disney film would spew out. A girl is trapped in a dark, destructive world, in this instance the Spanish civil war, and finds a possible way out to a magical kingdom, where she is allegedly the heir to a throne. The fairy tale creatures she meets along the way include a faun, a wicked toad and an insect that can transform into an imp-like fairy at its will. However, this is nowhere near the kind of film you can stick a child in front of. The tone is bad enough, rarely offering solace to the crushing misery of Ofelia’s home-life. Her stepfather is a cruel, monstrous man and as her mother slips into a coma during her pregnancy, Ofelia spends long stretches of time in this movie, trapped with a dark, brooding stranger, Sergi Lopez revelling in the chance to play one of cinema’s most despicable villains. Yes, the tone is something few children would be able to stomach, but the gore just makes it a definite adults-only affair. There are quite a few torture scenes, the deaths are grizzly (Lopez’s stepfather kills an innocent man using a bottle of wine in this movie’s first of many OMG moments), and bad things happen to the nicest of characters. Yes, fairy tales are usually dark affairs, but the classics cushion the misery with dancing teapots and charming princes. Del Toro enjoys bathing in the grotesque.
However, while you might struggle to think of anyone you would happily recommend this movie to, everyone seems to enjoy it. There is something so captivating about this story. Perhaps it is this brutal honesty that Del Toro tells Pan’s Labyrinth with. The themes of a fairy tale are still there, with a good set of morals at the end of it, but there is no bullshit about anything. The ending is ambiguous enough to suggest magic or fantasy isn’t even real. There is no hiding in the fantasy, as even the magical kingdom holds danger at every corner. Fantasy has never been so real or in-your-face. The faun is a thing of sheer spectacle, so ugly yet so captivating. He moves in an unearthly way, the prosthetics and make-up far better than anything CGI. This faun might look dated on his first appearance, but he grows into something timeless. There is no taking away from his physical presence, as his horned smooth face is totally juxtaposed with his slender fingers and frail body that moves with the grace of an elderly sloth. His look never gets old either, the faun always finding new ways to surprise or excite you. The way the Spanish language wraps around those words. The way he emerges or shrinks into the shadows. A crooning whisper turns into threatening anger. And then there is the Pale Man. His scene is trimmed and far shorter than anyone would like, but that one scene in the surreal dining room is the stuff of cult nightmares. At first, the creature is still and blind, immobile and helpless, yet eerie at the same time. You sit there, watching it in the background, the corner of Ofelia’s eyes. And when it finally moves, it gives most horror movies a run for their money, monstrous and terrible at the same time.
It is a shame that Del Toro spends so long in the real world, rather than the fantasy land. You understand why it is relevant to the tone and story, getting across that misery that fantasy is born out of, but do those scenes have to be so long and painful? Couldn’t Del Toro lean more towards Narnia and spend the first half hour getting the human element across, before throwing us into the world of magic, not cutting away until the conclusion? As a result, the magic surrealism is little more than a foot note in this film. The faun breathes life into the movie, but perhaps his wonder stems from the fact that he is always surrounded by scenes of soul-destroying misery. I am not saying that these scenes are bad. In fact, by the end, the tension becomes rather mesmerising, as the stepfather goes full villain, almost giving the Pale Man a run for his money when it comes to unstoppable and fearsome. However, no matter how great Lopez’s performance or character is, there is always this land of magic just out of reach on the horizon. But perhaps this is the point of Del Toro’s vision. As a result, Pan’s Labyrinth is beautiful yet unattainable, made even more frustrating because there will never be a film like this again.
Final Verdict: Film-making and fantasy at its very best, yet it leaves you craving more. Is that a bad thing? It depends on how the ending affects you, I suppose.