This wonderful film is only now getting well-deserved attention, and I’m partly to blame. When I attended its premiere in Toronto Film Fest in 2006, I was blown away. Having seen Guillermo Del Toro’s other recent movies – Hellboy, Blade 2 and Mimic, I was expecting something that was lacking, unfinished. Del Toro’s work has always struck me as impressive, well-produced tales that always fell short on something. With Mimic, it was unusual casting (although thanks for F Murray Abraham – haven’t seen him in anything decent lately), and slow pace. In Hellboy, it was too many special effects – personally I would have loved to get more story and fewer chases. In Blade 2 … actually that still rates as the best Blade film, can’t find any fault in that. In everything I’ve seen there was this insane attention to detail and decorations. Whether it was computer-generated or real, these rooms/costumes/castles/vistas were mindnumbing and beautiful, sometime taking me out of the picture altogether. I never saw The Devil’s Backbone (some say it’s a prelude to Pan’s Labyrinth), and decided to watch the former before reviewing the latter. Well, five months later, the movie is finally getting its audience, and I’m trying to play catch-up.
Unfortunately, I still haven’t seen The Devil’s Backbone, but from what I know, these two films should be watched back-to-back. Pan’s Labyrinth is not really a sequel, but it deals with many similar themes and historic events. It’s all Spanish civil war of 1940s. Except it serves as a background to a magical and frightening version of “Alice in Wonderland” or “Neverending Story”. A little girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), together with her pregnant mother, arrives to a fort deep in the countryside forest, to become a stepdaughter to a sadistic army general. Don’t you just love arranged marriages, where the woman has to say whatsoever, and the man literally points a finger and buys a wife, like a pair of gloves? As Ofelia’s life (and her mother’s well-being) slowly deteriorate, she discovers a magical labyrinth in the forest, full of beautiful, and frightening beings, who send her on various quests. Parallel to that, her new step dad is desperately fighting off partisan resistance, and gradually transforms into an obsessive control-freak, often taking out his frustration on the family.
The two plots are closely intertwined together, and yet have completely different tones and sets – the innocent voyage into the unknown world, versus a savage attack on a known but unseen world. A different movie would show the general as a caricature, and made his disobedient daughter a laughingly unbelievable heroine. Del Toro starts with two seemingly normal characters and slowly transforms their lives into that of unabashed escapism (Ofelia) and hard-to-contain helpless rage (her stepfather). Everyone caught in between slowly and desperately pick sides – are you with the insurgents, or are you with the captain, protecting the country’s status-quo (basically near-Fascist state)? The parallels with WW2 and post 9-11 foreign relations are clear, but the movie plays it straight. It’s all about Spain, and the misery it went through trying to overcome those dark years.
The sets are amazing, and the effects are impossible to catch. When one character cuts another’s cheek through with a knife, I winced (along with entire room) because it looked so real to me. Not a silly splatter of red, but a realistic wound-looking gash – which by the way did not disappear when that character appeared on camera the next day. Similarly, as Ofelia met one strange creature after another I just had to sit back and gasp at the detail, and the sounds it made, and the way it moved. Those animals were created, and not just drawn on paper. Someone imagined how they would smell, how they would balance their appendages as they moved. It was a marvel to watch.
But Pan’s Labyrinth is not just another “kid in a strange world” tale. The morals of the film are unusual, and even surprising in some places. The grown-ups are not just the background – some are guides, and others – obstacles to Ofelia. At times, I could not tell if a particular sequence was from her real world, or she suddenly was in the labyrinth again. So intertwined these two plots are. The underlying message is clear from the start – the real world, specifically a world at war – is a frightening place, no matter how scary a monster you may find in a dark forest. You sorta get it at first, but then things tumble downhill as general shows an even darker side, and insurgents turn more aggressive. And yet, as the film creeps towards its final showdown, Ofelia’s innocence, and her mother’s resolve seem to be all-healing, and all-forgiving. War is unimaginably evil, but if someone could dream up horrible things and terrible weapons, why can’t somebody else dream up beautiful creatures and wonderful miracles? Sounds bland, I know, but it’s the best way I can describe it. The film is very visual, at times disturbing, but behind it all is a simple, powerful message of peace and understanding.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a big screen movie, but it’s also a great family-room movie. Get it on DVD, and see just how often you’ll turn to it. For its imagination, for its depth, for its messages.