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The 1930s were a terrible time in Spain. Mired in a vicious civil war that saw both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia use Spain as a practice ground for WWII, the country descended into Fascist repression under Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Against this incendiary backdrop, we have Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a visually arresting film about the power of imagination and the strength of youth.
The film opens with eleven-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) traveling with her pregnant mother to meet Ofelia’s new stepfather, an army captain named Vidal (Sergi Lopez, “Dirty Pretty Things”) at a military camp deep in the Spanish forests. During the trip, we learn that Ofelia really likes reading fairytales, something her mother chides her about, but which will soon become her greatest weapon. Upon reaching the camp, Captain Vidal is revealed to be an intimidating and cruel lout who wants nothing to do with Ofelia, and is more concerned with killing leftist rebels than with his new wife’s well being.
Unceremoniously brushed off by her new father, Ofelia retreats further into her storybooks. That night, she is visited by a large chattering insect that transforms into a fairy. The fairy leads her deep into an ancient stone labyrinth on the grounds of the camp, where she comes face to face with the faun Pan, who informs her that she is the soul embodiment of a dead fairy princess and can return to her magical realm only if she can complete three tasks before the full moon.
These days, fairytales are generally considered to reside strictly within the realm of children’s literature. However, such a classification is a rather grievous misconception. Careful re-examination of the classic works, such as the stories by the Brothers Grimm, reveals that they are in fact some of the most violent and grotesque literature ever published. The same can be said for Guillermo’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”. While the story is about a child and fairytales, this is definitely not a children’s movie. There is a significant amount of pretty sadistic violence, as Del Toro pulls no punches in portraying the brutality of the fascists. The fantasy sequences are also steeped in the grotesque, and each environment is enveloped in a creeping grossness that escalates in tune with Ofelia’s real life anxieties.
After the visual effects overkill of the lame duck “Blade II” and the lamentable badness of “Hellboy”, Del Toro has gone back to his roots as a director of atmospheric horror. His earlier works, such as “Cronos” and the similarly themed “The Devil’s Backbone”, showed Del Toro to be an effective visual stylist, able to convey mood and fear through lighting, set design and sound. And so it is with “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which Del Toro uses to eschew flashy f/x in favor of elaborate sets, bizarre character designs and moody lighting to create a world of fear and uncertainty.
This technique applies both to the film’s reality and fantasy sequences. The Spanish forest is rendered in deep greens and blacks, shot from an upward angle with the sun peeking through the canopy in a most foreboding way. Danger lurks at every turn, both for Ofelia during her quests, and for the army as they shoot it out with the rebels. For Ofelia’s fantasy world, Del Toro lets his imagination run wild. Towering over Ofelia with his cloven hooves and corkscrew horns, Pan is a masterful work of costume and makeup. With a stilted swagger and gravely voice, veteran monster man Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in “Hellboy”) makes Pan an intriguing mix of danger and friendship. The other creatures Ofelia encounters are by degrees even more grotesque and fascinating, and the environments they occupy adjust accordingly.
At its core, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a coming of age story, showcasing the difficulties faced by children living through war. The strength of the film is not so much in its haunting and complex visions, but rather in its ability to balance them against things that are all too real. Behind the scary beasts and cold-blooded killers is a heart that is beating with love and hope for a world where one isn’t punished for dreaming. While Ofelia withdraws further into her fantasies as forces she can’t control close in around her, Del Toro refuses to take the easy path and portray Ofelia as the all-conquering hero. Her fantasy world is just that, and while it may provide a spiritual and emotional escape, there is no doubting the realities of the world she lives in. Del Toro makes it abundantly clear where fantasy and reality diverge, delivering an ending that is at once both uplifting, and yet resolutely downbeat.
Guillermo del Toro (director) / Guillermo del Toro (screenplay)
CAST: Ivana Baquero …. Ofelia
Sergi Lopez …. Capitan Vidal
Maribel VerdÃº …. Mercedes
Ariadna Gil …. Carmen
Doug Jones …. Fauno
Ãlex Angulo …. Doctor
Roger Casamajor …. Pedro
C’sar Vea …. Serrano