Pan's Labyrinth / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | January 17, 2007 | Comments ()
For folks like myself, who view fantasy flicks (or even “adult” fantasy) with the same esteem as most comic-book adaptations (i.e., with righteous disdain), you may be surprised by how entertained you’d be by Pan’s Labyrinth, a realization all the more unanticipated given the director behind the project, Guillermo del Toro (the Mexican Harry Knowles), who brought us the decidedly unfantastical Hellboy and Blade II. Granted, del Toro has more than his fair share of fans, but most — I suspect — have obscure allergies, spend countless hours chortling on message boards devoted to made-up languages, and masturbate to anime. Not that I’m judging, ever mindful as I am that it is exactly those sort of people who are known to populate comments sections with implorations to do more research, lest we forget to mention the small magical flourishes, of which there are many in the exquisitely rendered Pan’s Labyrinth.
There is also enough in Labyrinth to allow those in my position to forget, for considerable spans of time, that we are basically watching an adult fairy tale, a notion made a little more palatable by the attendant violence and the intelligent mix of politics and imagination. Certainly, there are enough fairies, fauns, and even a Lewis Carroll toad (that regurgitates its innards) to appeal to the disturbed, Tim Burton-esque adolescent in all of us, but the adult themes — war, the loss of innocence, the harsh cruelty of life — resonate loudest, even in del Toro’s impeccably created fantasyland, a divine creation that makes Spielberg’s attempts at the same seem like the work of constipated hack playing with a box of 12 Crayola crayons. In fact, I haven’t seen anything this voluptuously detailed since What Dreams May Come, though Labyrinth exchanges lush backdrops for gothic darkness, creating a bloody, almost three-dimensional dream netherworld.
Thankfully, Labyrinth also has something Vincent Ward never could have imagined: a coherent plot, here a dark, elaborate fairy tale within an engaging political allegory. The movie opens in 1944 Spain, shortly after the Spanish Civil War. The Franco fascists are in control of the country, mired in a struggle to pick off the few remaining isolated Republican militias.
As the movie opens, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is en route with her ailing, heavily pregnant mother to meet her new asshole stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who has been posted with his men in rural northern Spain to eradicate one of the last pockets of rebel guerillas. Vidal is the archetypical fairy tale stepfather: authoritarian, cruel, inhumane, and hostile to Ofelia. He’s also the power-mad mini-dictator of the outpost, easily threatened and quick to brutally snuff out anyone suspected of opposing the fascist cause. Unbeknownst to him, however, there are two rebels within his midst — the doctor and a servant, Mercedes (Y tu mama tambien’s Maribel Verdu) — who sneak food and medical supplies to the rebels.
On her first night, soon after Vidal viciously kills two suspected rebels, a cricket turns into a fairy and guides Ofelia into the labyrinth, where Pan (Doug Jones) — a mythical faun with Beetle Juice mannerisms — informs her that she is the princess of an enchanted underworld where her real father wears the crown. Pan, who bears a striking resemblance to an ancient tree, informs Ofelia that she must perform three magical tasks to ensure that her “essence is intact” before the next full moon in order to take her rightful place in the fantasy kingdom (I know, I know. I’d be rolling my eyes, too). The tasks include feeding stones to the giant toad, stealing a knife from a faceless, eyeless creature (who will fuck up your dreams for days), and, eventually, confronting Vidal. These tasks, however, are interrupted by her mother’s pregnancy complications, portended by a bloody Rorschach in a book of fairy tales Ofelia is reading. Pan assists her in this matter by offering a mandrake — placed in a bowl of milk under her mother’s bed and fed two drops of blood — that ultimately leads to the film’s crisis point, where both the political and fantasy storylines intersect.
Credit del Toro the filmmaker for creating such visually hypnotic film that he is able to pick up the slack where del Toro the storyteller occasionally stumbles. His reliance on fantasy lore and archetypes is either lazy, genius, or both — I don’t understand the genre enough to know if it is exhaustive research or simple recycling. In either respect, the disjunctive weaving of fantasy and reality is both jarring and cinematically melodic, like combining Public Enemy with Buffalo Springfield — it doesn’t make sense, but it somehow works; it’s breathtaking, even. The fantasy aspects of Labyrinth bring levity to the harsh political parable, while the conflict between the Francoists and the dwindling Loyalists adds heft to a fairy tale about a girl with a serious case of Peter Pan Syndrome. The combination is intoxicating.
Labyrinth is remarkable enough, in fact, to change my entire perception of del Toro — I’m not convinced, nor will I ever be, that Blade II and Hellboy are good, or even decent films, and Mimic may be one of the worst I’ve ever seen. But, maybe — just maybe — he’s sacrificed his talent up until now for cash, whoring himself out to adolescent boys and adolescent-minded men. Granted, I think that working in his native language and the relative simplicity of a fairy tale helps here, but when it comes del Toro’s stunning flair for visuals, consider me a convert.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.