Immersed in mystical fairies and demoniac monstrosities, Pan’s Labyrinth is an enchanting tale of spellbinding imagination contrasting with the austere realities of war. A strikingly mature fantasy fused with fervid violence, staggering visuals and ingenious creations, this macabre fairy tale is the most innovative and beautiful film of the year.
Dreamy little Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is taken to an army stronghold with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her stepfather, the merciless Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). It is 1944 in the aftermath of the Spanish Revolution, where Vidal is anxious to destroy a remnant rebel group hiding in the surrounding forest. Alone and powerless, immersed in violence and cruelty, Ofelia explores a stone labyrinth that houses the magical faun Pan. As he bestows upon her several daunting tasks, Ofelia lives out her own dark fable as she confronts monsters both hellishly alien and all too human.
The character and creature designs are simply phenomenal. The human characters are excellently depicted, allowing the audience to truly despise the villains and root for the heroes. There’s nothing worse than feeling sorry for the bad guy when he gets it in the end. This film ensures that you don’t. It is the fantastical monstrosities however, that are the true visual feast, such as Pan himself, a minotaur-like faun covered with scaly skin and fleshy branches and leaves, and crowned with enormous diabolic horns. The Pale Man is also a prime example of wicked genius; he is pasty white with thick, sagging flesh and bleeding red eyeballs affixed in the palms of his hands, and must thrust them in front of him to guide his twitching stride. Both characters employ brilliant prosthetics and makeup, magnificently brought to life by actor Doug Jones. To further mystify the viewer, the full body designs include fragile stilt-like legs that couldn’t possibly house a man in a rubber suit.
As we all know, special effects don’t make the movie, and exemplarily Pan’s Labyrinth uses such effects to perfectly compliment an inspired story full of imaginative originality. Including predefined mythological concoctions such as the faun, fairies and a mandrake, Pan’s Labyrinth beautifully melds familiar fantasy myths with its abundance of unique and devilish creations. The central motif is a brilliant parallel to those creatures, and fuses themes of fervid imagination and brutal reality, love, innocence, bravery and sacrifice. Contrasting against the gritty background of the Spanish Revolution, Pan’s world is both a dreamy escape and a nightmarish prison.
The acting too is commendable, most notably with Ivana Baquero, who evokes an exquisite blend of compassion and emotion. Del Toro favorite Doug Jones gets us so immersed in Pan’s fantasy world that perhaps the only fault with the film is the relatively short amount of screen time the elusive faun receives. Acting aside, this likely nominee for the Best Cinematography Oscar features ominous structures, old creaking buildings, and winding stone labyrinths that mark the forested landscape.
Be wary of the hypnotizing lullaby and the wondrous fairies in the trailer, because this film is by no means intended for children. Nightmare inducing creatures, relentless war brutality and jarring scenes of torture mark this film as an adult fairy tale that will be most appreciated by such. And it’s about time a fantasy film was made with the maturity and intelligence that adult audiences can enjoy. Guillermo Del Toro’s distinct style graces each scene and recognizable filmmaking techniques remind us that this veteran director was responsible for the macabre and exciting Hellboy and the equally mesmerizing The Devil’s Backbone.
Despite having to read English subtitles (the film is entirely in Spanish) and Pan’s relatively few appearances, long have I awaited a film of this breathtaking magnitude, creative genius, and all-enveloping fantasy. Rightfully winning several Best Foreign Language film awards from various respected critics circles as well as a Golden Globe nomination and most certainly a similar nod from the Academy, this is easily one of the best films of the year, foreign or otherwise.