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Pan's Labyrinth
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A Truly Magic Pan"
5 stars

We tend to think of fairy tales as easy-to-grasp stories that can be told to children without any worry of exposing them to questionable subject matter. Of course, what most people tend to forget is that the versions of the classic fairy tales that we have today are ones that have been bowdlerized over the years and that the original renditions were far darker in tone than we might imagine–in the earliest versions of “Cinderella,” as I seem to recall, the evil stepsisters were pictured attempting to cut their big toes off in an effort to cram their feet into those tiny glass slippers. Nowadays, infusing a story aimed for or featuring children with this kind of dark material is basically asking for trouble from critics and audiences–Terry Gilliam tried it with his haunting “Tideland” and inspired such outrage that you would have thought that he set fire to an orphanage instead of telling a story that dared to suggest that children were strong and resilient creatures who could fend for themselves in an increasingly creepy world. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how the public reacts to “Pan’s Labyrinth.” On the one hand, it is a dark and violent work that is filled with strange and creepy imagery throughout. On the other, it is also a bold and beautiful film that is, in a strange way, one of the most dazzling fairy tales to hit the big screen in a long time.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is set in Spain just after the official end of the Spanish Civil War with Franco firmly in power and rebel forces hiding in the hills while plotting their next moves. Our heroine is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl who, as the story opens, is being driven to a remote military base with her very pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her new stepfather, the powerful and sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Ofelia is too young to fully grasp just how brutal and vicious Vidal is (what he does to one suspected rebel with a bottle is among the most hideous things I have ever seen in a film) or exactly why her mother might take up with such a man after the death of her beloved real father but she is smart and intuitive enough to sense that he is bad news indeed. Instead, Ofelia spends time taking care of her mother, befriending housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and retreating into the fantasy world of the fairy tale books that she carries around with her at all times.

Before long, fantasy blends into reality when Ofelia is visited by a faun named Pan (Doug Jones) who is convinced that she is actually the long-missing princess of a vast underground world that can be accessed by a labyrinth located on the grounds of the base. To prove that she is the princess, Pan commands Ofelia to perform three tasks to prove her worth in order to be admitted into this world. While trying to perform the various tasks, Ofelia is still forced to confront the equally terrifying and confusing goings-on in the real world–the rebels (secretly aided by Mercedes) are growing increasingly bold in their actions and Vidal is growing increasingly violent and unhinged as he struggles to maintain the upper hand. At the same time, Ofelia’s mother grows sicker and Vidal makes it known that if it comes down to it, he is more concerned with having a blood heir than a wife. Eventually, Ofelia’s two worlds collide as Vidal becomes more fearsome and evil than any underworld creature and the young girl is forced to confront him in a meeting with violent and shocking consequences for all involved.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” was written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican-born director of such quirky genre efforts as “Cronos,” “Mimic” and “The Devil’s Backbone” as well as more conventional works as “Blade II” and “Hellboy” and right from the opening images, we instantly know that we are in the hands of a born filmmaker. This film is a feast for the eyes throughout on a par with Cocteau’s immortal live-action take on “Beauty and the Beast.” In the sequences set in the fantasy world, he presents us with an amazing array of fully fleshed-out locations which have been designed with the kind of detail that cries out for a closer examination once the film hits DVD and populated with creatures unlike anything that you have ever seen before. (The most memorable of the bunch being a terrifying demon known as the Pale Man who is able to see by holding eyeballs up to the stigmata marks in his hands) At the same time, without doing anything too obviously over-the-top, he brings the same sort of creepy menace to the sequences set in the real world–Vidal’s house is a rambling collection of corridors and shadows that are hiding any number of secrets and unspeakable depravities and the outside woods are frightening and exhilarating in equal measure. This is the fourth collaboration to date between del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and it is by far the most impressive of the bunch–with the sole exception of Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on “Children of Men,” this is by far the most visually striking film of 2006.

However, what really elevates “Pan’s Labyrinth” is the way in which del Toro deftly juggles what would seem to be three wildly incompatible plot conceits–the elaborate fairy tale trappings, the more down-to-earth tale of a young girl coming of age into a harsh and unforgiving world and Spain’s struggles to free itself from the grips of fascism–into one seamless tale in which each element serves to complement the others. At a time when most films–especially those of a fantastical nature–hardly contain enough plot for one story, the three threads here are so fully developed and packed with character and detail that each one could easily have spun off into its own full-fledged feature. Aiding immeasurably in this regard is that the film provides us with not one but three of the most memorable acting performances of the year. As Pan and the Pale Man, Doug Jones cast such a haunting and imposing figure that he automatically goes on the list of the all-time great fantasy creatures–this is a real performance and not simply an elaborate makeup job. As the absolutely vile Captain Vidal, Sergi Lopez creates one of the most evil characters to come along in a long time while providing him with enough shading and dimension so that we find ourselves somehow beginning to understand how this man became the way he is while still recoiling from his savage actions. Finally, there is the extraordinary central performance from newcomer Ivana Baquero as Ofelia–despite only being 12 years old, she takes an incredibly complicated character and hits every note with the kind of grace and skill that even a veteran performer might not have achieved.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is the film that “Lady in the Water” so desperately tried and failed to be–a work in which everyday reality and childlike fantasy stoodd side-by-side and merged into one. As M Night Shyamalan discovered, such a balance is difficult to achieve and if you make one wrong move, the entire spell can be broken and it is almost impossible to get back. (Of course, Shyamalan didn’t exactly help his case by staring off with the wrong moves virtually the moment that the opening logos ended.) Not only does del Toro pull it off, he does it with such consummate skill and grace that he makes it look infinitely easier than it must have been. Alas, the combination of graphic violence and foreign language may well limit the film’s ability to reach the kind of audience it deserves but I assure you that whatever hoops you have to go through in order to see it, this is the rare film that is actually worth the effort.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=14849&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/29/06 00:18:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/18/18 Marinah Visually mesmerizing tale of Death to Imagination,slaughter ID: mind cnfrm/cntrl paramount. 5 stars
9/21/17 morris campbell good horror fantasy check it out 4 stars
1/30/16 Alexis H Cold reality and dangerous fantasy collide in the fight for freedom 4 stars
11/12/13 Vanessa Campos I loved this movie for the fantasy and reality it portrayed. 5 stars
8/12/11 jiropan best dark fantasy film of all time..... 5 stars
5/15/11 stephen nettles OUTSTANDING 5 stars
9/26/10 KingNeutron Really disturbing in parts, but well made -- Note, Subtitled 4 stars
9/03/10 Simon Strange yet so fresh and intriguing the 1st time I saw it, 2nd viewing confirms its beauty 5 stars
6/05/10 User Name Del Toro magnificantly illuminates the grimness of reality and Olivia's fantasy. 5 stars
9/16/09 bored mom A fucking awesome psychological fantasy allegory set in fascist-era Spain 5 stars
6/15/09 MP Bartley A seriously impressive achievement. 5 stars
2/16/09 dolph G Spanish is the best language for the flim and one of the greats!! 5 stars
2/13/09 Raul Valdez Jr I dont give a sh!t what you all think but this movie needs to be in english 5 stars
2/29/08 Tammy Kennedy When i first got this movie i thought it was for kids, wow I was wrong. I liked it though 4 stars
2/09/08 R.W.Welch Creative stuff, tho a shade overdone at times. 4 stars
11/17/07 Brian Mckay "Bridge to Genocide-ia" is more like it - very dark and gritty film full of metaphors 4 stars
9/17/07 Axel A beautiful fantastical horrific sad movie.. BEAUTIFUL!! 5 stars
9/15/07 David Cohen Wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but I enjoyed it 4 stars
9/02/07 Kendra A good movie just a lil gory 4 stars
7/31/07 Shana Poorly written, especially the fantasy part which isn't really tied in well. Almost cheesy 2 stars
7/28/07 steven kelly Powerful, haunting, beautifully filmed; a masterpiece. 5 stars
7/11/07 Hello Stranger why would you rate a film based on how gory it is? idiots. this is a great take on fantasy 5 stars
7/06/07 AnnieG Can't understand what people love about this film ... it's lame fantasy and too violent 3 stars
7/02/07 William Goss A grand historical fable worth getting lost in. Just spectacular all-around. 5 stars
6/15/07 Mark Hambly Agree with all the good comments - Fantastic and mesmerising dark fantasy fable - Watch it! 5 stars
6/08/07 kalika Too gory, story line was under developed 2 stars
5/25/07 tony del Toro fulfills on the promise of Devil's Backbone; superior to Cronos 5 stars
5/25/07 Jiz Strong characters, great atmosphere, but a little too drawn-out. 4 stars
5/24/07 Tracey Chambers great movie. dark and very, creepy. 5 stars
5/21/07 Dark Enchantress one of the best films ever! 5 stars
5/21/07 action movie fan good special effects but story was much too lame 3 stars
5/16/07 Quigley Del Toro finally came through for me. Lives up to the title "masterpiece" in every way. 5 stars
4/13/07 Rayven Simply the best movie I have seen in a long long while-a masterpiece!! 5 stars
4/05/07 The Velcro Warlock One friggin' wierd film. Stays with you, but not necessarily in a good way. 2 stars
4/01/07 dtx120 Artsy, brutal, conflicting, and not nearly what I expected. One of the best of 06. 5 stars
3/13/07 Kerri Awesome film! 5 stars
3/12/07 guisada wow 5 stars
3/01/07 Anti-Xen Not bad at all, but lacking a certain something... 3 stars
2/28/07 malcolm creepy, captivating, with gorgeous set pieces 5 stars
2/27/07 Keystra Williams Got screwed out of the big prize on sunday! Boo! 5 stars
2/27/07 Jennifer Spry A beautiful dream 5 stars
2/20/07 Beau one of the best top ten movies i have ever seen in this decade, great acting 5 stars
2/18/07 dmitry Fantastic, makes "Children of Men" seem like a cartoon in comparison 5 stars
2/10/07 Jim Good, but not as good as Devil's Backbone; still better than 90% of Hollywood junk 4 stars
2/10/07 jcjs wonderful, just a masterpiece..has to be his best 5 stars
2/08/07 The chode Best movie of 2006, hands down. 5 stars
2/07/07 Dark Enchantress It was a great movie, but i thought there should of been more fantasy in it! 5 stars
2/07/07 toni amazing but with an underlining sadness 5 stars
2/03/07 The Talking Elbow Maybe not for everybody, it's sad but remarkable. 5 stars
1/29/07 Kate A STUNNING MASTERPIECE 5 stars
1/29/07 del Cranky and lee should both be shot in the genitals. 5 stars
1/28/07 TyrantisTerror Art in every positive sense of the word. 5 stars
1/28/07 Lisa Craven Loved it, very entertaining, kept me interested. 4 stars
1/28/07 Cranky Great when on crack, stupid illegal language which screwed it up! 1 stars
1/27/07 lee boring and belligerantly violet with no meaning behind its entirety 2 stars
1/25/07 Arlette Alice in Wonderland on crack. Great juxtaposition of two worlds. Loved the Dorothy "red sho 5 stars
1/25/07 Marty amazing movie. still can't believe that bitch ate that grape. 5 stars
1/22/07 Bitchflaps The feminist angle and the characters are underdeveloped, the allegory is overstated. 2 stars
1/21/07 Rob Loved it. Best film I've seen this year so far. 5 stars
1/20/07 Max I'm proud this Mexican film is touching hearts all over the world 5 stars
1/20/07 Ole Man Bourbon Very well done, entertaining throughout. 5 stars
1/13/07 hanabatake amazing, moving, horrifying. I can't get the images out of my mind. 5 stars
1/12/07 Deadly Assassin One of the best fantasy films ever...much better than that D& D crap !!!! 5 stars
1/09/07 kris Highly original, sad and brutal. An attack on fascism and Catholic Church. 5 stars
12/29/06 lee Best movie of the year!!!!!!!!!!!! 5 stars
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  29-Dec-2006 (R)
  DVD: 15-May-2007



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