Pan's Labyrinth 1.0 stars

Pan's Labyrinth movie poster

Guillermo del Toro, the migrant Mexican filmmaker, returns to the place and time of his Spanish Civil War ghost story, The Devil's Backbone, more precisely post-Civil War, mid-WWII. He centers on a preadolescent girl (wide-eyed, plump-lipped Ivana Baquero) chided by her nine-months-pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil, very intense) as too old to be still filling her head with the "nonsense" of fairy tales, especially since she has moved beneath the roof of her wicked stepfather (Sergi López, campily over the top), a Francoist martinet busily stamping out rebels in the woods, who has little tolerance for a child of another bloodline but is eager to get his leather-sheathed hands on his biological baby in his wife's womb. Much more welcoming of the little girl is the mythological faun (real or imagined?), the guardian of the off-limits garden, who identifies the newcomer straight off as the prodigal daughter of the King of the Underworld (what are the odds?). Del Toro, almost in spite of himself, is not altogether guiltless of conventional, parental, puritanical strictures against fairy tales. In his scrupulous, perhaps overscrupulous, balance of dark fantasy and brutal history, tilted (politically, diplomatically) a little toward the latter, he leaves nothing to chance. He establishes the Importance of his theme through the unassailable realm of Fascists and freedom fighters, and he connects that world to the parallel universe of fairy tales in a way that can best be termed didactic, academic, studied, possibly stifling. He makes a case. He does not make magic. Far more than The Devil's Backbone, the film that keeps coming to mind, always to this one's disadvantage, is Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive, 1973. That one, having in common a post-Civil War backdrop and a gullible little girl, made very much the same points, together with others, and made them more subtly, more ambiguously, more poetically; made them, moreover, while Franco was still in power; and made them without recourse to special effects beyond a Halloween get-up of Frankenstein's monster. Del Toro never lets his special effects here, some of them pretty tacky and icky, take over to the same extent as in his comic-book Hollywood movies (Blade II, Hellboy), but a mere black-gloved sadist, even with an open gash on his cheek, has a hard time holding his own against an arboreal goat-god, an insectile pixie, a featureless humanoid with eyes in the palms of his hands, an obscene giant toad, a Tim Burton-esque airless sunless tangled landscape, and so forth. 2006.

Duncan Shepherd

  • Rated R

This movie is not currently in theaters.

Comments

Jay Allen Sanford Oct. 9, 2009 @ 6:24 p.m.

The Hellboy movies and Blade II all carry the unmistakable Guillermo del Toro visual stamp, but Pan's Labyrinth seems to be the flick that most reflect his deep, dark soul. I've been obsessed with this movie since first viewing it on a battery operated DVD player in the midst of a power failure blackout, which turned out to be the perfect environs for this disturbing anti-fantasy classic. The DVD commentary clarifies a bit as to whether the little girl playing the lead is really piercing the fabric of myth, or if she's just living out an escapist fantasy to escape from her epically grim reality - but much is still left open to the viewer's interpretation.

Despite the subtitles (rough on those of us with the attention span of a gnat on meth), this movie sucked me in like no other I can recall in recent memory. It's astounding and thought provoking - and, oh yeah, a couple of scenes are scary as all getout! That creepy critter that holds its eyeballs in its hands freaked me out so much, I shouted out loud the first time he went all del Toro!

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Jay Allen Sanford March 24, 2010 @ 2:36 a.m.

I keep obsessing over this movie and rewatching - I recently checked out the very similar bookend to the story that director/creator Guillermo del Toro did, the Devil's Backbone, a more horror-based tale than the fantasy-themed Pan's Labyrinth. Like Pan's, it's got a young child (a boy this time) hand building an alternate reality, one that may or may not be real...

Exciting news today about del Toro - he's been picked by James Cameron to do The Hobbit, the two-part prequel to Lord of the Rings. I'll be at the drive-in on opening day!

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