Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu
“Pan’s Labyrinth“ may be the best film of 2006 (or 2007, if you consider that it didn’t hit wide release until January). Its 96% critical lauding on Rotten Tomatoes is all the more remarkable when you look at their “Cream of the Crop” selection of major critics, who gave it 100%.
Praise that effusive and that universal pretty much sucks the fun out of writing my own love letter to Guillermo del Toro’s dark vision. But even if I hadn’t been spellbound from first frame to last, I’d be wary of jumping into the opposition camp. Just a quick scroll down Rotten Tomatoes finds two of the six naysayers complaining that the film isn’t kid-friendly enough. Which is as stupid as slamming John Boorman’s “Excalibur“ because any King Arthur story should be for kids. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is an R-rated movie, gang — an R-rated movie entirely in Spanish, with subtitles. How much more did they have to do to make it clear that this film isn’t for kids (or at least, kids who don’t speak Spanish). Just because the movie has children in it, or fantasy elements that remind us of fairy tales, it does not mean we can’t make a movie for adults. You want the kiddie version, shove “The Dark Crystal“ into the DVD player and let your kids be babysat with that.
One of the keys to del Toro’s success with this film — what makes it a wonderful movie rather than just a decent film with some great moments — is that he manages to make both of the story’s worlds interesting.
It’s the tale of a young girl, Ofelia, who finds herself in a rural military outpost of the Spanish Civil War, from which her heartless stepfather wages vicious war on ragtag rebels hiding in the hills. The camp has an ancient and neglected stone labyrinth overseen by a carving of the Greek god Pan, and in it Ofelia finds a doorway to another world. Often a film like this will expend all its energy on the fantasy elements and barely carve out the “real world.” Can anyone even remember what Jennifer Connelly’s character was doing before she stumbled into Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth“? Dorothy’s Kansas couldn’t have been more boring unless they’d done those bookend sequences with still photos instead of movin’ pictures. Even in “Mirrormask,” the delightful real-world circus is jettisoned by tragedy, and our young heroine falls into the magical whatnot from the most blandly spirit-crushing apartment block in all of England.
In “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the war story is fleshed out, its cast is terrific, and had del Toro chosen to make a straightforward, unsupernatural story of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, it still would’ve been a compelling film. In fact, the movie spends more time in purely naturalistic real-world settings than it does in places magical. I’d also argue that the main contribution of the fantasy elements is their atmosphere. The design and direction are captivating, but the actual story being acted out in those sequences features novel stylistic twists on the routine quests of a fairy tale. It’s the war stuff, added to the fantasy vision, that makes the film really stand out — and the excellent cast del Toro assembled makes that drama come alive, when it’s the fantasy elements that probably drew the audience into the theater.
Like all films of this sort, we’re left room to doubt whether the magical stuff happened at all, or was the result of a child’s escapist imagination — both Dorothy and Mirrormask’s Helena simply wake up and are told it was all a dream. I would marshal a strong argument for which way this film’s realities fall, but it would be too spoiler-filled and detail-bogged. Regardless, with at least the possibility that fairy-tale-lovin’ Ofelia is imagining her fauns and fairies, it’s worth noting how dark a vision the supernatural world presents. A great commentary on war is present merely in the idea that a child amid such conflict could have such dark frightening fantasies. Even when she’s being offered hope of a magical future as a fairy princess, the agent of this destiny is no handsome prince charming but a faun so decrepit we’re grateful for the heavy shadows of his underground chamber.
Guillermo del Toro shows himself a masterful director. Audiences who only know him for “Hellboy” will be more surprised than they should be, since that underrated film was better than the average action/monster movie or comic book adaptation. For me, the film misses perfection in only one way, and I admit it’s a bias in how I regard fantasy films: When a filmmaker creates a fantasy world for me, whether it’s Oz or Tattooine, Spider-Man’s New York, Buffy’s Sunnydale, or the unique world of every Miyazaki anime, a key measure of success is that it leaves me wanting more. To create a magical world that I don’t want to return to as soon as possible seems like some kind of failure. When I walked out of the theater after “Pan’s Labyrinth,” I had enjoyed the film, was eager to think about its messages and discuss its style and execution “¦ but I also felt done. I didn’t want to own the DVD, don’t crave a sequel (not that I wouldn’t watch one), don’t want to continue the experience past this single and singular film. I think that’s me craving a flavor of magic that Del Toro never intended to offer.
Therefore, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is strongly recommended. It’s dark in spirit and in actual atmosphere, its war story is brutal and moving, its fantasy elements engaging and unsettling, its cast top-notch, and its director utterly assured. It asks questions about hope and hopelessness that it won’t answer for you. And if you wait for the DVD, you’ll regret it, if for no other reason than all that moody dark-cave stuff is gonna be unwatchable on anything but a large-screen television.