“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a fantasy film, but is by no means kid’s stuff. It is a graphic, violent film that is very much for adults.
Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a fairy tale in the original tradition of such writers as the Brothers Grimm. After years of sanitizing such stories we have forgotten how often twisted and tormented fairy tales could be. They didn’t always leave you with a warm fuzzy feeling. Del Toro knows this and doesn’t pull back from going to dark, frightening places.
The film is set in fascist Spain in 1944. As the film opens, a captain (Sergi López) has just married a woman (Ariadna Gil) who is pregnant with his son. The Captain reluctantly takes in his new wife and her daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), but there’s no sense of love or compassion. He cares only for his unborn son.
Ofelia meets a fairy that leads her to a labyrinth on the captain’s property. There she is told by a faun that she is the long lost re-incarnation of the princess of a magical kingdom who can only return by completing three tasks.
The film recalls numerous stories, books and films including “Alice and Wonderland,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Shining,” “Beetlejuice” and numerous others. Its story is familiar, but its tone is unique.
Where most fantasy films spend most of their time in the fantasy land, much of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is rooted in a bleak reality. The captain is a sadist who takes cold pleasure in using a plethora of tools to slowly torture people.
There are bursts of sudden violence that are shocking, even for a country desensitized by the gruesome horror of films such as the “Saw” franchise. The captain’s comeuppance and its aftermath are particularly disturbing.
If the fantasy world Ofelia enters is an escape it is only marginally so. An encounter with a creature with eyes in his hands and a hunger for blood is the stuff of nightmares and even the intentions of her guide the faun are ambiguous at best. And yet this world offers Ofelia something that war torn Spain cannot: hope.
Del Toro, who has worked within Hollywood on films such as “Blade 2” and “Hellboy”, says he never could’ve made this film in Hollywood. It is a fairy tale for grown ups that creates a genuine sense of menace and dread. You fear the worst for the young heroine. It isn’t clear that a happy ending is guaranteed.
The film is astonishing on the level of visuals and deserved its Academy Awards for art direction, cinematography and make up. The creature effects and make up on the faun, eye-hands monster, fairies and a giant frog are nothing short of amazing.
In this post-CGI era of filmmaking it is nice to see effects that haven’t come from a computer. There is an immediacy and physicality to the visuals in the film that is often lacking from effects that are too obviously computer generated. There is real beauty in the film. Del Toro’s camera, in both real and fantasy worlds, takes its time with slow, tracking shots that absorb the details.
Del Toro drains reality of color, where the fantasy land bursts with color, but in both cases there is a slight other worldly quality. You are reminded that both worlds are seen through the eyes of a child and that it is probable that one of the worlds could by entirely of her own creation. The film doesn’t offer answers in that regard and leaves it the viewer to decide if the fantasy is real.