Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

16 Feb

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a fairy-tale fantasy that does two things different with the fairy-tale element in its story. 1) It blends it with reality in a way that what goes on with the protagonist in the real world is somewhat related to the fantasy world. 2) It gives, without exaggeration, the darkest fantasy ever depicted on film (and yes, I’ve seen “Heavenly Creatures”). This movie deserves its hard R rating—it is not for children, by any means. Don’t be fooled by the poster that shows a plucky little girl venturing into the fantasy world—this movie is hard on all levels. It is also one of the best fantasies in the history of cinema—touching, thrilling, well-executed, powerfully-acted, and dark. Very dark.

This movie was made in Spain, and Spanish is the language heard throughout. Yes, this is a foreign film and it shouldn’t be a problem unless you can’t read the English subtitles.

The setting is Spain, 1944. A young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Banquero, in her acting debut) travels with her pregnant mother, whose pregnancy is killing her, to a house in the forest. There, she meets her stepfather-to-be, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a vile man who runs an old mill and commands a fascist outpost.

Near the house is a stone labyrinth that is easy to get lost into. But it turns out this labyrinth is enchanted and visited by fairies and a faun (presumably the “Pan” in the title, but no one refers to him by name). The faun believes that Ofelia is a lost princess from his world of enchantment and tests her skills by giving her three tasks. If she succeeds for all three, she gets invited to stay in the fantasy world, free from the trouble that is life and away from her the cruel Captain Vidal. One of her tasks involves a run-in with a scary pale man with pale and decomposing skin all over his body (oh, and he has eyeballs in the palms of both his hands). He chases her because she breaks the rules of the task—that’s an easy life lesson for kids who do wind up seeing this movie.

In the way that these fantasy sequences are intertwined with the reality of the story with Ofelia’s mother and cruel stepfather, there are many times in which we can hardly tell if what she’s only dreaming these strange events in this bizarre world. This is very effective because in some ways, the creatures she encounters are even more frightening than Captain Vidal and we do fear for her life. This is not handled predictably. In the meantime, we get plenty of scenes involving Captain Vidal and his men looking for the enemy in the woods and a subplot involving Ofelia’s secret that she knows the maid Mercedes (a great performance by Maribel Verdu) is assisting their enemies as well. It’s interesting how fantasy and reality are both involved in this movie.

Director Guillermo del Toro reportedly did not want Hollywood to help him with this movie. I bet if they did, most of the shots that make many scenes even more powerful would have been omitted or not even filmed in the first place. They also would’ve asked for the story to be toned down to a PG rating. (At least, that’s what I think.) There are a lot of great visual shots in this movie—one shot in particular doesn’t even take place inside the labyrinth, but inside Ofelia’s mother’s womb, where we see the fetus of the unborn baby. This shot is unsettling, but very inventive and haunting. Also, the visual style here is amazing—especially in the adventures Ofelia has in the fantasy world—and the makeup, for the faun and the pale man, is ultimately effective and impressive. This faun, played by Doug Jones (not a Spanish actor, by the way), is probably going to give children nightmares based on his look, as well as his speech. This creature is really creepy. But the sight of the pale man with eyeballs in his hands may do even worse effect. This movie is not intended for kids, by any means.

Oh, and I should also mention the mandrake root that Ofelia hides under her sick mother’s bed. It becomes what is probably more creepy-looking than the faun or the pale man. It looks like a half-baby made from elements of the earth.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is visually stunning—every creature looks about as real as you could get and we fear them; they are nightmare fodders for sure—and the direction by Del Toro is amazing. There is one shot in which we follow a strange insect (a mantis-type creature) as it flies all around the forest until it finds its way to our heroine for the first time. But what really makes “Pan’s Labyrinth” an extraordinary fantasy, as well as its look, is the grimness and great power of the storyline. Let me remind parents—it is R-rated. If you want your children to watch the “Wizard of Oz” of the 21st century, this is not it (there are many “Harry Potter” movies for that, maybe). But adults (and maybe teenagers) are going to find the movie powerful, scary, fantastic, and, once again, very grim.

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