Pan's Labyrinth Review
By Joe Lozito
As he proved in his wonderfully hypnotic ghost story, 2001's "The Devil's Backbone", there are two topics that make Guillermo del Toro shine: the supernatural and the Spanish Civil War. After a foray into mainstream filmmaking during which he turned his gothic sensibilities on Hollywood ("Blade II", "Hellboy"), the director again masterfully combines these seemingly disparate elements in the beautiful but relentlessly bleak fairytale "Pan's Labyrinth".
Set in pro-Franco Spain at the end of World War II, "Pan's Labyrinth" tells the story of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl uprooted to live at a military outpost by her pregnant, widowed mother. The camp is run with an iron fist by the cartoonishly evil Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a ruthless dictator of a soldier who ensconces Ofelia's mother in the hopes she will produce a male heir. As Ofelia, and the film itself, struggles to find humanity among the atrocities of war, she quickly learns that you can't always tell the good from the bad by appearances. When she is approached by a mischievous Faun (Doug Jones, Abe Sapien in "Hellboy") who tells her she may be a lost princess, Ofelia find refuge from the horrors around her in a magical world which may or may not exist in her head.
Whether it's real or not is beside the point, it's Mr. del Toro's wonderfully vast imagination that makes the film such a masterpiece. Even the soundscape in the film is beautifully realized. The Captain's movements have the inhuman squeak of leather, while the Satyr creaks like a tree branch. Mr. del Toro's script mines a panoply of mythological references and spins them to his will. Like the best of storytellers, he takes familiar elements - a maze, a flying pixie, a magical book - and turns them into something new. A particularly memorable scene involves a frightening ogre with a unique way of seeing. And happily the writer-director knows how to use, but not over-use, special effects. Witness the subtly rendered insect that guides Ofelia to the maze in a nearby forest.
Mr. del Toro ably juggles the two worlds of the film: Ofelia's fantasy and military encampment, which is in the midst of a revolution. A housekeeper, Mercedes (the wonderfully sympathetic Maribel Verdú from "Y tu mamá también"), who shuttles food and medicine to a band of rebels, provides a suspenseful subplot which grounds the film in its harsh reality.
And make no mistake, the reality of this film is harsh. "Pan's Labyrinth" is for anyone who finds the "Harry Potter" or "Narnia" movies too light - anyone who likes their fairytales grim. There isn't an ounce of joy in the lives of these characters. It might have been nice if Mr. del Toro could have given them some release. But he is uncompromising in his vision. This is the type of movie M. Night Shyamalan thinks he's making. And like the best fairytales, this one's liable to stick with you for a long time.