(aka: El Laberinto del Fauno)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
(in Spanish, with English subtitles)
Pan's Labyrinth is a both a real-life drama and a fairy tale (too intense for kids -- R-rated for graphic violence and language) set in Spain in 1944 while the aftermath of their civil war is still being played out and the Second World War rages nearby. The heroine is a girl (Ivana Baquero in an impressive debut as Ofelia/Princess Moanna) on the cusp of adolescence who escapes, like Alice, into a fantasy world of mythical creatures – presumably to escape her frustration with her real-world situation.
Guillermo del Toro, best known as director of Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004), takes us along with Ofelia on her wildly magical trip into the underworld of the labyrinth. All the fantasy scenes are absolutely top-rate visual delights. My only wish is that there could have been a little less of the real world and more of the darkly gorgeous fantasy world. The real-world part of the film is well done in terms of production values (costumes, cinematography, etc.) but I found some of the characters a bit clichéd – more later on that. Also, since the fantasy scenes were so strong dramatically, so wonderfully imaginative visually, and so well executed, that I left the theater wishing for much more fantasy – at the expense of some of the roughly two-thirds of the run time set in the real world.
A note about the title: a faun is a mythical half-man, half-goat creature. Pan is a particular faun: a god in Greek mythology. But the faun in the film isn’t Pan. The original title in Spanish refers to a faun (fauno) but I guess the American distributors figured that not enough Americans knew what that is.
Ofelia is frustrated by her real-world situation: she’s been taken by her mother to a remote mountainous outpost where her stepfather (Sergi López as Capitán Vidal of Franco’s army) is battling a rag-tag group of rebels. She doesn’t care for the Capitán at all but can’t persuade her mother to feel the same way, so she feels trapped and frustrated. Her escape is into fairy tale books. When she meets an insect and shows it a drawing of a humanoid fairy in a book, the insect morphs into a shapely female humanoid form and leads Ofelia to the labyrinth. It’s an ancient stone structure, mostly underground, very dark and scary. The labyrinth leads to an underworld that’s beautifully designed and rendered onto film – a visual delight. Once down there Ofelia meets a faun. He explains that she’s actually the long-lost Princess Moanna who left the underworld to explore the human world but lost her memory of who she is. Her father, the King of the underworld has been waiting a long time for her return. There’s a catch: in order to return, Ofelia must pass three trials to be sure that her spirit hasn’t been corrupted by the human world. The faun (Pan, played by Doug Jones who also plays the monstrous Pale Man) will guide her through the trials.
One change could have made a much more engaging film: use the real world only to set up the entry into the fantasy labyrinth. Just show the audience how frustrated Ofelia is with her real world life, which drives her to total immersion in fantasy. The fantasy part of the film is much more interesting – more of a visual delight. The scenes in the labyrinth are why most people go to the movies. It’s a shame that some of the strongest fantasy cinema I’ve seen in years was cut short.
Given that the filmmakers chose to set most of the run time in the real world, they could have done a better job with those scenes. Our villain, the evil step-father, struck me as a little over the top, given that Ofelia’s mother loved him and remained loyal. I had trouble believing the character – but I don’t blame the actor (Sergi López), who played the part with zeal. I just found the character more like a slasher-movie bad guy than a realistic 1940s military man who is loved by Ofelia’s mom. Although Maribel Verdú is delightful as Mercedes (a servant to the evil El Capitán and a mole for the rebels) in some scenes she is doing things that would expose her as a traitor in a much too obvious way. For example, she takes a long look at a military map, right in front of her boss.
Given that so much screen time is devoted to real-world Spain in 1944, the treatment left much to be desired. El Capitán and his men (hiss, hiss) are portrayed as the embodiment of mean-spirited oppression (and Franco’s Spain was no utopia, make no mistake) and the rebels are pure and idealistic. The reality of Spain in those years is not nearly so simple and a very interesting story (see Wikipedia links below). I believe the filmmakers squandered an opportunity to explore a potentially engaging historical topic.
Pan's Labyrinth reminds me of one of my all-time favorites: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (my pick for the best movie of 2002). In both films a heroic and brave little girl takes a trip into a fantasy world and must accomplish difficult tasks. Even the art direction in the two films is similar. One key difference: Miyazaki spent most of the run time in the fantasy world, del Toro spent more time in the real world.
In spite of my reservations, I recommend Pan's Labyrinth as a must-see film – and that’s also a must-see-on-35mm film as well. The dark underworld is populated by strange and scary creatures that Ofelia must bravely confront: a giant, slimy toad, the monstrous Pale Man, and the animated mandrake root. The Faun himself, while on Ofelia’s side, is a very tough task master.
Depending on whether or not the viewer believes that the underworld is real or a figment of Ofelia’s imagination the ending can be either triumphant or very sad. Either way, it’s a great story, beautifully told by one of my favorite directors.
Images are copyright Picturehouse Entertainment.
For more information about this film including detailed cast and crew credits, check out The Internet Movie Database by clicking here.