Pan's Labyrinth Reviews
Following the Spanish Civil War in 1944, young Ofelia (Baquero) moves to a rural town with her pregnant mother (Gil) to live with her Fascist military stepfather (López) who is determined to weed out resistance fighters to Franco's dictatorship. It's in this remote town that Ofelia meets a faun in the centre of a labyrinth who tells her that she is a princess. However, to claim her rightful place in this magical land she must perform certain gruesome tasks to prove her royalty.
It's hard to pigeon hole a film like Pan's Labyrinth as there are so many facets to it's structure. On the one hand, it's a political/historical drama and on the other it's a fantasy/horror. Few (if any) films will spring to mind when these genres are mentioned in the same breath which reflects the very craftsmanship that's at work here. One thing that you can undoubtedly count on, though, is it's highly imaginative nature. Sure, we've had fantastical stories before where a young girl escapes her constrained life to enter bigger and more possible worlds. We've also had commentaries on the brutalities and restrictions of fascist regimes but to combine them into a wondrous journey of life, struggle and imagination is an amalgamation that I have rarely witnessed. Such is the case with this film and such is the skill of del Toro in his writing and handling of the material. He incorporates an abundance of childhood fantasies, from delving into books and mythology - that feature fauns and fairies - to the power of a piece of chalk on the wall. This may be built around the point of view of a child's eye but its also not afraid to explore the darker recesses of that very imagination and construct some of the most monstrous creatures that can inhabit that realm. Del Toro is in absolute command here and he's aided, immeasurably, by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro in capturing and contrasting his world within a world; one is a visually striking and enchanting fantasia, the other a stark and brutal reality. It's a balance that's difficult to achieve but with deft handling of coexisting genres, del Toro's vision is able to come to fruition and manages to be both a reminder of the rigidity of fascism and the escapable ability of an imaginary youthful mind.
To embody the young protagonist, we are gifted an outstanding performance from Ivana Baquero who carries a heavy weight on her young shoulders and does so, with a skill beyond her years. Sergi Lopez also provides marvellous support as the bestial Captain Vidal who's a smouldering villain that's on a par with any of the war genre's nastiest characters.
It's very difficult to find criticism in this film as there simply, isn't any. The only one that stands is in the film's title. It's slightly misleading as "Pan" never actually features here. The original international title translates as "Labyrinth of the Fuan" which is probably the most pedantic gripe you'll ever hear from me.
A stunning piece of work that's both beautifully and horrifically executed. Modern masterpiece is a term that gets brandished around too often these days but this is one that's certainly deserving of such praise.
Having let the dust settle, and in anticipation of Peter Jackson's return to Tolkien, the time feels right to re-examine Pan's Labyrinth in a different context. And if anything, del Toro's masterpiece is even more astounding, astonishing and heart-breaking second time round. It is the pinnacle of del Toro's career to date, the culmination of all the greatness he showcased in Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, and proof that he is, to paraphrase Mark Kermode, the Orson Welles of fantasy filmmaking.
As well as being a sister film to The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth draws on a number of influences from del Toro's formative years as a filmmaker. Its extraordinary special effects, a mixture of CGI, make-up and animatronics, recall his childhood love of John Carpenter's The Thing, while its strong-willed and inquisitive female protagonist hints at his appreciation of Lewis Carroll. It is also part of a rich vein in fantasy and horror filmmaking which explores past or alternative identities bubbling to the service, something David Lynch approached in Mulholland Drive and David Cronenberg depicted in The Fly and A History of Violence.
The comparison with Alice in Wonderland helps to illuminate the huge strength of Pan's Labyrinth, which lifts it far above the more standardised, condescending fantasy that Hollywood often produces. Terry Gilliam, whose works also blend fantasy and reality, has long argued that through the eyes of a child, fairies and demons seem just as real as anything we adults take for granted. While Gilliam faltered in his own approach to Alice (Tideland is at best an admirable failure), Pan's Labyrinth genuinely makes you see the world through the eyes of a child. It doesn't do this by referencing childlike imagery in a knowing, adult way: it does it by treating the child's viewpoint as the most reliable, if not the only reliable view on offer in a world which everyone is struggling to understand.
Within the first ten minutes of the film, Ofelia has been established as the only possible point of focus. The brief backstory surrounding Princess Moanna gives no suggestion that she and Ofelia bear any resemblance. After this we are thrust straight into the back-end of the Spanish Civil War, shown a world of brutality and ruthlessness contrasted by our early sightings of the fairies in the woods. Because Ofelia is the only other person who recognises seeing the fairies, and makes no effort to deny it to herself or her mother, we naturally gravitate towards her, taking her view as ours - something that never falters in the whole of the next two hours.
The world of Pan's Labyrinth is visually extraordinary, with del Toro and long-time cinematographer Guillermo Navarro working in perfect harmony to create a unique cinematic experience. The colour palette is awash with ethereal blue light and faded pastel and watercolour tones; the lavender purple of the soldiers' uniforms looks like colourised black-and-white footage. The make-up and creatures all have an unnervingly grotesque quality, whether it's the giant toad, the Faun, or the mouth of Sergi Lopez after it has been sliced open with a razor.
Pan's Labyrinth is a film which recognises and celebrates the darkness of fairy tales, emphasising that they are not, as Ofelia's mother believes, childish stories that one eventually grows out of. There are numerous moments in the film which are really scary or deeply uncomfortable, and none more so than Ofelia's encounter with the Pale Man. This terrifying creature with sagging skin, sharp teeth and eyes in the palms of its hands, is as creepy as the witches of Brothers Grimm and as brooding and sinister as Bluebeard. The film earns its 15 certificate for his scene alone, not so much for its graphic content but from the sheer terror generated from both the design and the brilliant performance of Doug Jones.
Like all the best fairy tales, Pan's Labyrinth has a deep moral backbone buried under its layers of magic and mystery. Del Toro described the film as being about "a princess who forgot who she was", with the lead character needing not only self-belief but self-sacrifice to achieve her goal. Ofelia begins to refer to herself as 'Princess Moanna' very soon after her encounter with the Faun, but she finds herself torn between her need to complete the tasks and the love she shows for her mother and unborn brother. Her capacity for compassion towards the human world is seen by the Faun as a weakness, but ultimately it is this which proves her worth and allows her to re-join her father in the underworld.
Del Toro contrasts the dark worlds of Ofelia's monsters and war-torn Spain to make a number of points about fantasy and human nature. Fairy tales, and by extension horror movies, have often been held up by their respective fans as mechanisms to cope with the horrors of the real world: by being exposing to darkness at a young age, within a carefully controlled environment, people are better equipped to deal with real evil whenever and wherever it emerges. Del Toro clearly agrees with this: the longer Ofelia spends carrying out the Faun's tasks, the less intimidated she becomes by Captain Vidal.
Pan's Labyrinth is structured in such a way as to draw parallels between the monsters in both worlds. This is not as direct or blatant as Peter Pan, where traditionally the same actor plays Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, to make a point about children fearing their parents. The point del Toro is making follows on from the observation about the cathartic effect of fantasy and horror stories. On the one hand, the creatures in Ofelia's 'fairy tales' are not simple, frothy and easy to dismiss: even those who are on her side are genuinely threatening. On the other hand, the real world contains characters every bit as monstrous and sadistic as the Pale Man. They differ in their methods, but share the goal of crushing the human spirit and imagination, whether through physical torture or psychological humiliation.
The film is a masterpiece of directorial skill which finds del Toro at the top of his game. His choice of shots and camera angles is masterful, maintaining intimacy with the characters even during the moments of great splendour or breathtaking human tragedy. Individual shots, like the blood trickling down Ofelia's fingers or the screaming mandrake root, are shot in intense close-up to emphasis the pathos of the situation. Equally impressive is the seamless editing, which allows fantasy and reality to blend without effort. In one memorable shot, we move from the toad's kingdom in the base of a tree to the soldiers in the forest through a simple pan of the camera.
Pan's Labyrinth is also a deeply political film. Set at the end of the Spanish Civil War, it shows how fragile and vulnerable fascist rule is in reality. The wellbeing of the base depends greatly on the personal strength and charisma of Vidal: when he begins to be undermined or express doubts, the whole system quickly collapses. As with Ofelia's storyline, it is a case of imagination and ideals triumphing over the cynical, the ruthless and the cold-hearted. The ingenuity of the rebels in the woods seems no match for military might, but it is this ingenuity, self-belief and self-sacrifice which ultimately eliminate Vidal.
Pan's Labyrinth is a peerless masterpiece among fantasy films, rivalling The Lord of the Rings for the title of greatest fantasy film of our time, if not all time. Del Toro's superb direction and incomparable storytelling are reinforced by amazing performances from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia and Sergi Lopez, following on from his villainous turn in Dirty Pretty Things. Its horrific beauty and overflowing imagination makes for two hours of mesmerising cinema, culminating in a final scene which is both heartbreaking and triumphant. It is one of the great films of the decade, and the jewel in del Toro's golden crown.
The only way for me to describe this film is to think of the darkest, most richest fantasy that could surpass films like The Lord Of The Rings, The Chronicles Of Narnia, and Harry Potter. Being an adult (in terms of tone) version of Alice In Wonderland, this is a beyond complex film. How so? Because while all of the fantasy aspects are going on, there is this complete separate subplot going on about Spain during World War II and that is somehow mixed in with all of the Fantasy parts. Basically, this is a film that could of went disastrously wrong, but thankfully it did not.
Now, when I re-watched this film for the first time in a year and a half, I noticed something that made me think back to Marlon Brando. You see, with acting there are two eras: Pre Brando and Post Brando. This was because Marlon Brando invented new methods of acting that changed the way actors acted on screen. (For example, what The Godfather) The reason why I brought this up is because I noticed that, for one character, that this film created a new era in terms of enemies: Pre-Vidal and Post-Vidal. In the movie, the character of Vidal is portrayed by Sergi Lopez and he makes this character one of the most sadistic and down right terrifying war captains I have ever seen. This film, in terms of his character, is ahead of it's time only to be proven by the character of Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
That is another thing that makes this film so genius: the characters. But the two (I would say three, but I already talked about Vidal) that just steal this film is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and Pan (Doug Jones). With Ofelia, I am just surprised at how well acted her character was. I know for child actors/ actresses it is difficult, but with the material and the pure imagination of this film, she was fantastic and a bit heartbreaking in one scene. For Pan, Holy ****. I have no idea as to what to say about Doug Jones. But, if I had to say something, I would say that his performance reminded me of that of Tim Curry in Legend: completely breathtaking. But most of that has to go to the make-up effects team for designing this faun and making him look aged, terrifying, yet comforting. And with his acting, for having been through all of that make up, it was outstanding.
The look of this film is, without a doubt, one of the most important things to notice. Everything was the dark, gritty real world to the fantastic and terrying underworld to even the creatures that Ofelia encounters is, breathtaking. Del Toro has a wonderful eye for capturing the dark beauty of this film, and it just works.
That is probably all I can say about this film: dark, beautiful, near perfect in almost every category, and just a thrill to watch. But, best keep young kids away. Some of the torture scenes and dark imagery might be a bit too much. But for everyone else, this is a feast for the imagination.
Although its visually beautiful and the storyline is unique and intriging i just didnt find it enjoyable enough to fully appreciate and enjoy this movie.
It's so raw, doesn't bother dumbing down or simplifying it's themes but still presents it with such majesty. Easily an all time favorite.