Pan’s Labyrinth: Del Toro’s Creepy, Poignant Fairy Tale For Adults Is A Masterpiece!

Pan's Labyrinth - PosterGuillermo Del Toro's films have all been detours into the highly imaginative realms – from horror to comics. They have all been smart, effective films and earned him a reputation as one of the best directors in the world. Pan's Labyrinth elevates him to the next level: one of the best of the best…

Pan's Labyrinth is set in the fascist Spain of post-World War II. Ofelia [Ivana Baquero] reluctantly accompanies her pregnant mother, Carman [Ariadna Gil] to a weary outpost to join her stepfather – Captain Vidal [Sergi Lopez] – who insists that his son be born there. Before they even arrive, Ofelia stumbles upon a stone carving of a face that's missing an eye – a piece of stone she's found nearby. When she replaces the eye, a strange, huge bug emerges from the mouth of the stone face.

When we first meet The Captain, he's muttering about his wife and daughter being fifteen minutes late. When they arrive, he's all courtly manners, but there's something in the way he disliked there being late that makes his manners seem a charade. Soon afterward, we learn that our suspicions are right – his treatment of two hunters is so casually and fatally violent that we know this is a man who is genuinely evil.

Meanwhile, Ofelia and her mother have settled into bed together – Ofelia telling her unborn brother a bedtime story that comes right out of the Grimm sensibility. After her mother falls asleep, the strange bug appears – and transforms into a fairy! Ofelia follows it into the garden and a dark labyrinth.

Pan's Labyrinth - Ofelia

In its center is a large well-like hole, with a descending staircase. Ofelia follows it to the bottom and meets Pan [physically performed by Doug Jones] who tells her she is actually a princess and must perform three tasks to be reunited with her real father. Naturally, these tasks are dangerous – and have obstacles with serious repercussions.

The juxtaposition of Ofelia's fairy tale world and the real world is effective in the extreme. Both worlds are dangerous – even horrifying – but there's a feeling of something better waiting at the end of the girl's quest, while the world of The Captain seems filled with endless pain. Even so, even Ofelia's fantasy world promises tragedy if the rules aren't followed.

One of Del Toro's cleverest devices is the manner in which Ofelia's fairy tale world affects the real – the use of a classic fairy tale device to help alleviate Carmen's suffering, for example, effectively blurs the lines between what is real and what is not. The care given to the blurring of FX also contributes to the film's success. It is impossible to tell where practical effects meet CGI, giving the whole a feel that is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

In a world where an outpost of soldiers is still at war with rebel guerillas, it's hard to point to anything specific to say that this creates a contrast that helps build suspense – the film's palette ranges from grays to dark blues and blacks. The suspense – and horror – that builds in the film comes from the characters. As evil as The Captain is, behind his courtly manners, Ofelia and her mother are equally as good – as is the maid, Mercedes [Maribel Verdu], who is also a mole for the rebels.

Pan's Labyrinth - Pan & Ofelia

Ofelia's tasks remind of the twelve tasks of Hercules – adding a certain extra mythological resonance beyond the presence of Pan, while The Captain's intelligence adds to the depths of the horrors he promulgates. There is a balance here that Del Toro establishes early on, and hews to with a surety that makes Pan's Labyrinth one of the most enthralling films of the last twenty years. Then, to cap things off, Del Toro builds to a conclusion that is simultaneously joyous and tragic.

Pan's Labyrinth is a genuine masterpiece. Del Toro's script walks the line between Good and Evil, Innocence and Knowledge. His characters are as real as they are symbolic, and his love for high drama – both real and fantastic – is the heart of the film [along with Ofelia's determination and purity]. Visually, the film is complex without being off-putting: both the real and the fantastic have weight and depth.

Since the film revolves around Ofelia, Del Toro required a young actor who could make us believe the two worlds that her life straddles. In Baquero, he found a remarkable actor who, like our own Dakota Fanning, is capable of detail, precision and nuance. She also has the luminescent beauty and curiosity of the innocent. Her performance is as masterful as Del Toro's script and direction.

Of course, this being a Guillermo Del Toro film, there are homages and quotes all over the place to delight his fans and knowledgeable film and comics fans. One that stood out for me was the window in Ofelia's bedroom [after she is made to sleep apart from her mother]. It is the window from Doctor Strange's sanctum. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment, but one that also adds resonance to this magical movie.

Grade: A+


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