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Pan's Labyrinth A-
Year Released: 2006
Modern film fantasy has been so dominated by Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam that it's hard to pinpoint when Guillermo del Toro snuck silently into their ranks. His dark visions came out of left field, hidden by foreign-movie artiness and creeping up on mainstream America only gradually. The surprise hit Hellboy (actually one of his weaker efforts) gave him multiplex pedigree, and now Pan's Labyrinth assures us that his Hollywood success has neither compromised his vision nor prevented him from expressing it unmolested. With Gilliam in decline and Burton's efforts growing increasingly self-indulgent, it's nice to know that there's a third musketeer ready to pick up the slack.
Pan's Labyrinth is first and foremost a fairy tale, complete with wicked stepparents, challenging riddles, and clever little girls in way over their heads. Yet it approaches that equation from a supremely adult standpoint. Its closest relative is Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, though del Toro avoids the confounding pretension of that earlier work in favor of his own mordant witticism. Its structure is as direct as any nursery rhyme, but its sensibilities speak to far more complex notions, and the intoxicating mixture of grown-up themes (along with some nasty bloodshed) means that children should definitely skip this particular bedtime story. For adults who remember those long-ago nights under the covers, however, its temptations prove almost too much to resist.
As with his earlier film The Devil's Backbone, del Toro couches his supernatural goings-on amid the scars of the Spanish Civil War. In 1944, as the rest of the world burned, Franco's fascists cemented their hold on the nation, wiping out the remaining Republican resistance as they went. Out in the provinces -- a place where the woods still hold untold dangers and starvation is more than just a long-ago Brothers Grimm contrivance -- a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) at a fascist garrison. The commander, Vidal (Sergi López), is Ofelia's new daddy, who expects his wife to quietly produce a son for him, and then stay out of his way. Local guerillas are still hiding in the wilderness, and like any cornered animal, desperation has only made them fiercer. Vidal intends to crush them beneath his heel once and for all, removing the last shreds of defiance in the area so that the trains can once more run on time.
But partisans are not the only menace out beyond the garrison's perimeter. Other creatures exist, with far longer life spans and far different agendas. Chief among them is an impossibly angular faun (Doug Jones) who guards a gateway to a magical underground kingdom. He believes Ofelia to be the reincarnation of an ancient princess, destined to return and rule the underworld by her parents' side. But before he can take her there, he needs to make sure he's got the right gal. How can he do that? Well, there are a few special tasks that need performing, tasks that only the true princess can complete without being killed.
Del Toro overlays this classic structure with 20th-century notions of tyranny and political power. While The Devil's Backbone used its supernatural elements as mere flavoring, Pan's Labyrinth interweaves them such that they are indistinguishable from the modern struggles around them. Ofelia makes little distinction between the threat posed by her ogre of a stepfather (well played by the supremely underrated López) and those of the faun's dark missions. Fantastical figures emerge from shadows or mundane objects; they never appear to anyone save the girl, and even then only in the hazy trappings of dream logic. She might be conjuring them from thin air, a childlike means of mental escape from her increasingly miserable circumstances. The empowerment they convey -- performing valiant deeds as a royal heir to a kingdom far away -- enables her to defy the more mundane horrors of her life, which she can see in Vidal's draconian efforts to crush the insurgency.
They also might be leading her into adulthood, a prospect del Toro coats with impish suggestions of infernal temptation. Beyond the obvious sexual undertones (and a none-too-subtle bit of symbolism involving a muddy dress), Ofelia's journey contains feminist connotations as well. When her delicate mother falls ill, she turns to the protection of a household maid (Maribel Verdú), whose agenda reveals itself in the film's most gruesome moment. Del Toro never makes it clear whether the woman's impromptu tutelage of Ofelia aids her missions for the faun or impedes them, but while the male characters are treacherous and mercurial, the women make promises and stand by them. The results bring psychological depth to the film's more overt enigmas, while respecting the audience enough to let them make what they will of each development.
Beyond that, Pan's Labyrinth relies on an excellent sense of horror and suspense to keep the storyline moving. Ofelia's tasks involve travel to marvelous realms hidden just out of sight, rendered with eye-popping imagination and yet fitting the film's narrative structure like a glove. Del Toro's grasp of time-honored fairy-tale motifs plays out in some terrific cliffhangers (I cannot stress this enough, people: if you ever find yourself in a mystical land of wonder and enchantment, do not eat the fruit) while the story's rising action hangs together with admirable symmetry. As an auteurial vision, it remains strikingly original, evoking Gilliam/Burton-style sensibilities but dependent upon neither. Del Toro permeates the proceedings with some sharp bits of mischief, but he marshals it with admirable discipline, keeping character and narrative in the forefront without letting the visuals run away with him. The results link his shadowy fantasy with the messy brutalities of reality, reminding us that all bedtime stories carry hard-won truths at their core. Grown-ups often need to hear them too -- in adult terms rather than coddled by infantilized wish fulfillment -- and Pan's Labyrinth pays them the compliment of delivering the shot straight up. It's comforting to remember that no matter how old we get, the woods will always go a little deeper... and that there will always be stories as good as this one to help guide us through.
Review published 12.27.2006.
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