Pan's Labyrinth (2006) / Fantasy-War
aka El Laberinto del Fauno

MPAA Rated: R for some graphic violence and language
Running Time: 112 min.

Cast: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones, Alex Angulo, Manolo Solo, Cesar Vea, Roger Casamajor
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Review published January 15, 2007

Set in rural northern Spain in 1944, following their Civil War, Pan's Labyrinth tells the tale of Ofelia (Baquero, Romasanta), a young girl who travels to a military camp with her pregnant mother (Gil, Belle Epoque) in order for her stepfather, the ruthless Captain Vidal (Lopez, Jet Lag), to be there for his son's birth.  Vidal is very busy trying to stamp out the remains of a band of guerrillas who are in the woods nearby, suspecting that he may have a traitor in his own camp who is giving them food and medical assistance.  He'll do anything, and torture anyone, in order to kill every last one of them.

Meanwhile, Ofelia is very much a girl who enjoys flights of fancy, regularly reading (and even telling) stories akin to fairy tales, but finds herself in the middle of one when she discovers the nearby ruins of an old labyrinth, which is presided over by a large magical faun (Jones, who physically played the character of Abe Sapien in del Toro's Hellboy).  The faun informs Ofelia that she is a princess there, and in order for her to leave the human realm and re-enter her mystical domain, she needs to carry out certain tasks, including finding long-lost keys and ancient daggers in order for a certain ritual to be performed.

Pan's Labyrinth marks the second film that Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, has set around the times of the Spanish civil war, coming after the events in The Devil's Backbone.  Both films are remarkably similar in certain ways, featuring child protagonists who find realms of fantasy within their mundane and oppressive existence.  The loss of one's parents and fulfilling a certain legacy left behind are core themes in del Toro's stories, as Ofelia still feels a connection to her deceased father that compels her, while Captain Vidal tries to measure up to the memory of his own. 

The most praise-worthy element of Pan's Labyrinth happens to be its visual components, which are often quite stunning.  It's difficult to understand how such a visually beautiful film could be made for so little in budget, as estimates range anywhere from $5 to 15 million.  Whatever the final numbers are, there's no question that the visuals would still impress even if the budget were $100 million, with special effects that are very well rendered, top-notch art design and sets, and fully fleshed-out creatures like the faun, the fairies, and in one of the more nightmarish scenes, the pale creature who just might eat Ofelia if he were to catch her.  This film is truly an eye-candy lovers delight.

If you've followed Guillermo del Toro's career, you should be aware that Pan's Labyrinth isn't a commercial vehicle meant to entertain the masses in the ways that Blade II, Mimic, and Hellboy were.  Although all of his films have special effects and elements of the fantastic to them, this film won't have that "mass consumption" appeal to it, as it is dark, brutal, depressing, and doesn't make an effort at a feel-good climax (although there are moments when you might find yourself cheering when characters gain small victories).  In many ways, it is the film that A Series of Unfortunate Events could have been if it didn't originate as cute family fare.  The R-rating here is deserved, as there are moments of violence that had even someone as inured to it as myself wincing in my seat from the sometimes-graphic nature of it.

Although it is probably unintentional, comparisons will no doubt be drawn from those that see the film with Jim Henson's Labyrinth and his production studio's more recent Mirror Mask.  Production design is definitely favored in all of these films, and they all tell fairly similar stories of a girl who must go into a fantasy realm in order to try to save a family member from harm.  It's more likely a case of these films drawing upon the same literary sources surrounding the themes often found in stories about labyrinths, which they have carried over as central narrative elements in their own independent stories.

In these sorts of stories, it's important to identify with the heroine, who is usually a young, innocent girl.  We become frightened that such a character traverses in ever-dangerous environs, both in the real world and the fantasy, and in the case of Pan's Labyrinth, this technique proves to be most effective.  This is in no small part thanks to del Toro's ability to handle child actors, and also in the casting of Ivana Baquero, who does a remarkable job as Ofelia.  Unlike other stories, the adventure isn't predicated on the heroine learning to value her current life so much as it is indicative of the sacrifices she is willing to make in order to get out of it, so in that sense, it is very different from Henson's Labyrinth in a fundamental way.

Pan's Labyrinth is a hard film to define from a genre standpoint, mostly because the realness of the fantasy elements is very subject to interpretation.  One could see the film as straightforward, taking the trips into the faun's realm as actually happening, or they could also see the fantasy elements of the story as taking place only in the mind of one girl yearning to find some sort of meaning and escape to her miserable existence.  To me, it is clear which of the two is what del Toro strived for, but it's never absolutely conclusive one way or another.  You'll probably choose to believe the version you wish to believe.

Despite the film playing in a more artistic mode than it does conventional, the film can still be viewed much in the same light that one enjoys old fairy tales.  Those stories we all heard as kids really didn't always make sense, but they do capture elements that disturb, frighten or delight us for reasons that may not always be tangible.  Pan's Labyrinth's story is a bit bizarre, subject to interpretations both literal and figurative, but even if you aren't trying to figure out what it all means, it does retain a certain sense of cohesion to it.  Like most fairy tales and elements of horror, it taps directly into your subconscious, where things like dreams and nightmares take place, bypassing the areas where logic, reason and analysis reside. 

 Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo