“In the fascist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.”
Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro, Rated: R, 118 minutes
There are only a handful of filmmakers and storytellers working today who can transport us to their worlds like Guillermo Del Toro can. The man has a capacity of imagination none of us will ever know, and instead of keeping all of his ideas written in his journals and diaries, he brings them to life for all of us to enjoy. What makes everything even more enjoyable with Del Toro is that he’s also a nerd. Obsessed with comics, fairy tales, video games, and everything else that keeps you from seeing bits of daylight, Del Toro not only has that capacity, but also possesses an understanding for what we want in a story and the skills to bring it to life. With Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro’s finest work, everything that makes the man who he is, is brought to fruition. His Spanish heritage, his visual style, and his imagination all play a large part in the film and only adds another layer to it.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a young girl who’s always moving thanks to the fact that her terrible step-father, Vidal (Sergi Lopez) is a captain in the Spanish military at the height of the Spanish Civil War. The war is over, but pockets of resistance fighters are still fighting and it’s Vidal’s job to extinguish the rebels at any cost. Buckling down on every aspect of the camp he oversees, Vidal rules with a fist of a dictator and the ruthlessness of a sadistic soldier. To retreat from her every day abuse , Ofelia finds solace in the fairies that appear to her, leading her on a journey to discover who she really is. Given three tasks by an ancient (and creepy) faun, Ofelia must overcome the fears and dangers of not only the real world, but the fantasy realm she’s stumbled upon. Young Baquero delivers an incredible performance from someone so young and her veteran supporting actors only add more to the product. Sergi Lopez is terrifying as Vidal, and rivals many of cinema’s most vilest of villains. Besides her sick mother, Ofelia’s only other ally is the maid, Mercedes, played by Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien). She’s fierce, she’s loving, and she provides the slightest bit of hope in the world ravaged by war and control.
On the surface, Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale. Ofelia, an innocent young girl, is taken away to a strange world where she has much more power than she’s made to believe. She’s the last remaining hope of a dying world and it’s up to her to save it from fading into oblivion. Yes, this is a story we have seen countless times and continually relate to, but Guillermo Del Toro brings an added level of maturity to the tale, interweaving splashes of heavy violence with the beautiful colors we’re accustomed to seeing. The audience is drawn in by the beauty of the world (paralleling Ofelia’s encounters), only to be thrown aback by the destruction that wrecks itself upon both worlds. The contrast is what makes Pan’s Labyrinth a remarkable film and a very haunting experience.
However, as disengaging the violence is, Del Toro doesn’t throw buckets of blood in our face left and right. Each moment of horror accentuates the fairy tale at the heart of the story and brings us back to reality. Pan’s Labyrinth is a beautiful rose with gigantic thorns and each prick cuts deeper as the film progresses. But with each drop of blood, the “in between” of our world and the next blurs even further and the union of the two at the movie’s conclusion is all the more fitting.
Now, the world that Ofelia inhabits (in both instances) is brought to life by the remarkable art direction by both Guillermo Del Toro and Eugenio Caballero. In most instances of films taking us to marvelous places, we lay witness to too many special effects and poorly rendered creature designs. With Pan’s Labyrinth, everything feels tangible. Employing a combination of practical effects, set designs, and costumes, Pan’s Labyrinth creates two worlds that feel hand in hand. With the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, we’re already aware of the proper setting and time, adding to the realism. When the transition from that era into the fantasy world happens, it’s all the more fluid. Both worlds co-exist and the parallels between the two happen both symbolically and visually. As real as the world we know as history is, so is that of the magical realm. It’s also worth mentioning that a journey as beautiful as this is deserving of a worthwhile accompaniment, musically, and Javier Navarrete’s wonderful score only adds more magic to the film.
Growing up, we all have our own imaginations that take us on all sorts of adventures. We also have our own fears and worries that consume our nightmares, keeping us up at night or worried about what’s under the bed or outside our windows. With Pan’s Labyrinth, a combination of both of these things dance about in a world created by Del Toro. Sure, we always assume that our own imaginations have no limits and we can go wherever, or whenever we want, but with Pan’s Labyrinth (and the bulk of Del Toro’s career) we’re reminded that there are master storytellers for a reason. For when we cannot go to an other-worldly realm on our own, we take the hands of those who were graced with that power and trust them with our time and energy. While I have been on plenty of journeys with Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth still remains his most beautiful, most tragic, and most realistic adventure yet. And I can’t wait to see where he takes us next.
A fairy tale that not only bites into you, but injects a venom that lets you see the beauty in the darkness and in the peace of letting go
a haunting lullaby that is the score by Javier Navarrete
incredible set design, makeup, effects, and more that bring Del Toro’s imagination to life and help transport us to the world he’s created