Pan's Labyrinth

  • Guillermo Del Toro
  • 2006

Pan’s Labyrinth marks the third effort of Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s 1940 Spanish-based films and is a much welcome return to his more substantial ‘art-house’ film flavourings after Hollywood efforts Mimic (1997), Blade 2 (2002) and more recently Hell Boy (2004). Although his Hollywood produced films were fun they were undeniably lacking in depth in regard to characterisation and storyline but this is a factor the director himself admits. Pan’s Labyrinth on the other hand takes cue from his 1991 film The Devil’s Backbone (2001), a highly unconventional horror film that focused more on the dramas surrounding the Spanish Civil War and human weakness than the sinister goings on in the building’s basement.

In this respect Pan’s Labyrinth is much the same. It follows the tale of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) a girl living in Franco’s Spain whose imagination is consumed with Fairy Tales. Appropriately this provides a welcome distraction from the very real horrors surrounding her new life with ‘surrogate’ father Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), an unrelentingly authoritarian officer fighting a small scale war against the local ‘Communist’ militia whilst trying to balance his priorities to Ofelia’s mother {Ariadna Gil}, soon to give birth to his child and heir. Not far from the camp Ofelia stumbles across the ruins that local legend believed to be a Labyrinth. There she meets a Fawn who believes her to be the long lost Princess of the Underworld, and he sets her three tasks to prove herself and finally be returned to the throne.

…Ofelia’s family is caught in the middle of a hell that often looks far worse than the most dangerous creatures in the deepest dungeons of the underworld.

Despite the distinctly fantasy orientated title and suggestive marketing campaign Pan’s Labyrinth, like The Devil’s Backbone, is one of those strange films that can either fall into the fantasy, drama or alternatively art-house category. In fact it encompasses all three and is distinctly adult viewing certainly not intended for mainstream audiences. The fantasy element almost acts a sub-story with the crux of the movie focusing on the horrors surrounding Vidal’s brutally unforgiving war against the Militia and how Ofelia’s family is caught in the middle of a hell that often looks far worse than the most dangerous creatures in the deepest dungeons of the underworld. Therefore anyone expecting a more accessible fantasy adventure such as Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003) or more appropriately Jim Henson’s furry-creature-feature Labyrinth (1986) is liable to be disappointed, and as a result audience appreciation is certainly likely to be dictated by this unusual balance.

To his credit, Del Toro does seem to have a knack of keeping his less conventional films interesting by this combination of human orientated drama with the fantastical, rather than going for straight Hollywood horror that more often than not, falls flat on its face due to lack of storyline and a quick exhaustion of whatever made it scary. His foreign films mix substance with unremitting style and as a result you have a fine mix of story with stupefying special effects, and therefore his distinctly adult fairy tale offers something considerably different to your staple Hollywood films that, more often than not, scarifice story and imagination to make the more accessible and profitable PG13/12A certificate.

…a superbly produced film with fantasy scenes that are nothing short of spectacular.

Despite being made on an incredibly small budget of $15 million, Pan’s Labyrinth is altogether a superbly produced film with fantasy scenes that are nothing short of spectacular. The character design, set design and direction is utter class throughout, with some wonderfully scary and ridiculously imaginative creatures. In all this Del Toro finds an almost perfect balance between the fantastical and absolutely horrific, something made all the better by the fact that your never quite sure whether it’s all in Ofelia’s imagination, and if it isn’t, whether the motives of the creatures are honourable or not. This is certainly no children’s fairy tale, rather a distinctly adult one similar to likes of Jeunet and Caro’s City of Lost Children (1995) and even Jan Svankmajer’s Little Otik (2000) in its predilection towards dark, violent fantasy and a lack of happy ever afters.

The only big problem in an otherwise exquisite film is the balance between the two stories. Whereas The Devil’s Backbone mixed hard hitting drama and seriously scary horror into a winning fusion of substance and style, Pan’s Labyrinth feels more like you’re watching two separated stories that don’t really connect. Therefore you can’t help feeling more could have been done to connect the two realities, and unfortunately you find yourself waiting in anticipation for Ofelia’s next task, which is a shame because the drama surrounding the Captain consists of hard-hitting, well worked drama whereas Ofelia performs glossy but event based tasks. It therefore lacks the balance in story that made The Devil’s Backbone such a solid piece of film-making, and unfortunately this is a big flaw considering storyline is everything when watching a film of this kind.

…a wonderfully twisted journey with brutally unforgiving drama…

However, that aside, Pan’s Labyrinth is a wonderfully twisted journey with brutally unforgiving drama and some of the darkest and most imaginative fantasy scenes committed to film for a long time. This is likely to be a cult hit amongst some art-house audiences but the unconventional and somewhat fractured storyline is likely to completely isolate itself from mainstream audiences and even some concerning moviegoers.

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