Pan's Labyrinth
By: Rod Williams on January 18. 2007  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Credits
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Maribel Verdu, Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Ariadna Gil, Alex Angulo
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Country: Mexico / Spain / USA
Australian Release Date: January 18, 2007
Distributor: Hopscotch Films
Running Time: 114 minutes
Pan's Labyrinth aka El Laberinto del Fauno is one of those prickly movies to review, because much of the entertainment value and fun derives from not knowing what's going to happen next. Certainly this writer walked into the screening with no prior knowledge about what to expect apart from (a) it was a dark fantasy of sorts, and (b) it was directed by Mexican genre poster boy Guillermo del Toro. If you prefer to stay in the dark like I was and skip the rest of this critique, then it's probably enough to say that the movie is well worth catching, especially for jaded fans of the macabre. Oh yeah, and the dialogue is in Spanish with English subtitles. Enjoy the show!

In broad strokes, the story, set in 1944 Spain during World War II, sees pregnant war widow Carmen (Ariadna Gil, Don Juan) and her distracted daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, Rottweiler) taking up lodgings with stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi López, Dirty Pretty Things) and a small deployment of his troops – foot soldiers of Franco's fascist regime. The compound is under threat from attack by rebels hiding in the surrounding forest, thus putting everyone on edge. Also lurking in the woods is an ancient stone maze, which the imaginative 12 year-old Ofelia discovers after a flying stick insect lures her into its magical domain. There she learns from a behooved Pan creature (Doug Jones, Lady in the Water, Doom, Hellboy, Mimic) that she may in fact be the lost princess of a mythical subworld kingdom. To resume her rightful office, Ofelia must complete three grim challenges set by Pan. Meanwhile, conditions in the camp begin to deteriorate as Ofelia's mother approaches her delivery date, the increasingly agitated Captain Vidal asserts his authority in various horrible ways, and the guerilla fighters become more bold in their maneuvers.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro from what seems to be his own original screenplay, the power of Pan's Labyrinth lies in its genre-bending aversion to orthodoxy and formula, at least in terms of its overall impact, if not the specifics. This tale could not have been conceived – or even green lighted for that matter – by the boardroom of any major Hollywood studio. (Warner Brothers did have a financial stake in the film, but it shares the credit with many other backers.) This is why fans of dark fantasy and horror have embraced the movie: it features elements of a children's fable mixed with a gritty wartime drama that could be an SBS movie of the week. To paraphrase Monty Python, what we have here is Something Completely Different.

Part of the audience's disorientation surely stemmed from the high production values, capable acting performances, and themes of bravery, sacrifice and heroism in the face of adversity. Furthermore, the seamless visual effects were by prolific US outfit CafeFX, which has too many credits to name, while the gruesome practical make-up was undertaken by a Spanish crew whose English language credits include 1492: Conquest of Paradise and del Toro's previous Spanish/Mexican production, The Devil's Backbone. The result is a quirky hybrid that's not experimental or avant garde, but neither is it close to being mainstream as we know it. Of course, del Toro has directed many big budget projects in the past, namely Hellboy, Blade II, and Mimic (problematic the lot of them), and was capable of mounting enough resources for a semi-independent film like this one with an adequate budget. That combination of creative isolation and healthy capital means that Pan's Labyrinth comes closest to being his most fully realised, satisfying and personal project to date. The awards it's won since being released certainly bears this out: Boston Society of Film Critics, San Francisco Film Critics, Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, and Florida Film Critics Circle awards for best foreign language film, eight BAFTA nominations, a Golden Palm Cannes nomination, best film gong from the National Society of Film Critics, 2007 Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film, not to mention a phenomenal 8.4 average on IMDB.

Will it be a classic? That's unlikely. There is no doubt that the first viewing is bound to be memorable, no matter what your biases might be, since the direction is so forceful. Whether it holds up on repeat viewings remains to be seen. I have no desire to watch it again soon, if that counts for anything. There's just too much fairy tale content for my tastes. However, you may think differently.

Horror fans have been sucked in by hype in the past for the latest splatter film, only to be disappointed by lousy filmmaking or censorship compromises. While there are gorier films around, Pan's Labyrinth hammers home its visceral shocks with the added impact of some neat characterisation and robust storytelling. When I saw the picture encased in my bubble of ignorance, the apparent children's fairy tale trappings that launch the narrative promised 90 minutes of juvenile weirdness – dark fantasy or not, kids solving problems just bores me to tears. It's now common knowledge that Pan's Labyrinth has a lot more going for it. Make sure you don't miss out. Next up for Guillermo del Toro is, umm, Hellboy II. Yup, one can't help feeling that it will be a step down.
Movie Score
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