Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Warner Bros., 2006
Fantasy has been all over the goddamn movies the last few years.
Not that I’m surprised. The second the Hobbits swept the Oscars, I could see it coming. A bunch of useless, capitalist, soulless executives in every major motion picture studio were already adding up how much money they were going to make optioning anything that had a wizard. Or a dragon. Or a crystal-cloak-wand. You get the idea. I just settled into my seat and waited to be bombarded by bad CG fireballs being thrown at bad CG trolls, while some old, formerly respectable British actor looked on and stroked his beard-extensions. And I would just hate it.
Luckily, there’s often someone out there on the ball just enough to spin a sales trend like this in an interesting direction. And in this case, it’s Guillermo del Toro and his new film Pan’s Labyrinth. Although del Toro has had his biggest success with strange-but-mainstream horror flicks like Mimic, Blade II, and the disappointing Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth has much more in common with a smaller, darker film he released in 2001: The Devil’s Backbone. Both films are set during the Spanish Civil War. Both films are in Spanish. And both use the lives of children in violent times to draw depressing insights on humanity.
While The Devil’s Backbone drew inspiration from horror, however, Pan’s Labyrinth has more to do with tropes from fantasy and fairy tale. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother arrive at their new home in the rural hills. Ofelia’s new stepfather is Captain Vidal, who has been put in charge of eliminating the last few rebels left in the forest. No man could be better inclined to the job: he’s merciless, amoral, and brutal. Strangely, these qualities don’t really translate well into being a father/husband. Stranded in this horrible situation, Ofelia escapes into an elaborate fantasy involving a nearby labyrinth, as well as fairies, monsters, and a faun who sets her on a magical quest. Is it her fantasy, or is it all real? No, I’m actually asking you, because the movie doesn’t really clear it up.
But anyway, what’s most interesting about the film is the slow shift in tone it takes as it goes on. The light, naïve tone of Ofelia’s fantasy world becomes darker and darker as the brutality of the real world starts to infiltrate it. The audience is drawn into a world that ends up being far more disturbing to watch than they’re initially led to believe. The result is a far more compelling world that doesn’t want to leave you after the film is over.
One of the few complaints I had about the film really isn’t a complaint I can really fault the film for, since it’s such a ubiquitous practice in films today. I don’t find CG monsters, or effects, engaging at all. I’m fully aware that in reality the actor is staring at nothing. Of course, don’t listen to me, all I do is ramble. Just go watch Pan’s Labyrintha and tell me which characters are more fascinating to watch: the toad and the fairies, or the animatronic Faun and Ogre.