Ivana Baquero as Ofelia
Ariadna Gil as Carmen
Sergi López as Capitán Vidal
Maribel Verdú as Mercedes
Doug Jones as Pan/Pale Man
Álex Angulo as Dr. Ferreiro
Manolo Solo as Garcés
César Vea as Serrano
Roger Casamajor as Pedro
Ivan Massagué as El Tarta
Gonzalo Uriarte as Francés
Eusebio Lázaro as Padre (Father)
Francisco Vidal as Cura (Priest)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro pulls a gorgeous dark fantasy tale out of his bag of tricks, showing his incredible flair as a filmmaker and a storyteller, even if it doesn’t seem nearly as groundbreaking as its precursor, “The Devil’s Backbone.”
In 1944, a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to the palatial Spanish villa of her future husband, a military captain (Sergi López) fighting resistance forces hiding in the hills at the end of the Civil War. An avid fan of fairy tales, Ofelia discovers a secret maze on the grounds where she meets a Faun (Doug Jones) who claims that Ofelia is a princess who will regain her rightful place on the throne if she can complete three seemingly impossible tasks.
You have to admire Guillermo del Toro’s unique vision and his ability to take that vision to places no one could possibly imagine. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is del Toro’s second film set during Civil War era Spain, and it’s similar to “The Devil’s Backbone” in that it superimposes supernatural fantasy over the horrors of wartime, this time in the form of a fairy tale.
Once again, the story’s main character is a child, a young girl named Ofelia, played by del Toro’s talented young discovery Ivana Baquero. Like the best screen heroines, Bauero’s able to keep the viewer’s attention as she traverses between the real world and more fantastical situations. Ofelia’s vivid imagination takes her to an abandoned maze, where she encounters a large Faun. Rather than being the cute, friendly woodland creature we’re used to seeing in fairy tales, this is a dirty, intimidating beast whose motives for assigning Ofelia with three dangerous tasks seems questionable. The first of these tasks involves a key protected by a large ugly toad living under a tree, while the second has her retrieving an object from the lair of an eyeless creature with a taste for children.
The Faun’s intentions are relatively innocent compared to Capitan Videl, Ofelia’s future step-father, a sadistic and cruel man who will do whatever it takes to squash the resistance, often shooting or striking first and asking questions later. This impulsive behavior will get him into trouble later, but he’s a shrewd military man able to get anything he wants and getting many chances to explore his proclivity for torture. As Ofelia tries to fulfill her three tasks to escape this situation, her pregnant mother starts to get sick while the resistance plots an attack on the military encampment using information from an inside source at the villa.
Fairies, fauns and giant frogs aside, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is not the kind of fantasy tale you can sit and watch with the kids. It’s extremely dark and the violence is so brutal that it’s sometimes hard to watch. The influence of Terry Gilliam, particularly films like “The Fisher King” and “Baron Munchausen,” are fairly evident in the way Ofelia’s fantasy worldthat is, assuming it is fantasyis just as dark and scary as the real world around her. The juxtaposition of reality and fantasy is amazing, even if the jumps between the different worlds is sometimes jarring. That being said, every frame of this film is gorgeous due to the perfect camerawork by del Toro’s regular cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and the production design, which uses a limited color palette to give the real world a colorless grey look compared to the colorful fantasy sequences. Javier Navarette provides an equally gorgeous score to embellish the epic nature of the film.
The melding of CG with on-set creations is impressive, particularly the sprites that accompany Ofelia on her missions, but it’s even more amazing when the two are mixed, as is the case with the dual-performance by Doug Jones (Abe Sapien in “Hellboy”) as the two main creatures, the Faun and the child-eating Pale Man encountered by Ofelia. In most cases, these would have been done using solely CG, but Jones gives the creatures an even more other-worldly quality with his graceful movements.
The cast of mostly unknown Spanish actors brings another layer of realism to “Pan’s Labyrinth,” fleshing out del Toro’s characters with strong performances, not just from relative newcomer Ivana Baquero, but also from Maribel Verdú as the villa’s housekeeper Mercedes, who plays a key role in the story’s resolution. The real standout is Sergi López, who brings such a joyful malice to the primary baddie, especially in the last half hour when his troops clash with the resistance where we get to see how truly evil and sadistic he is. Not that we needed much more proof by then, but the way he goes about torturing his captives puts the Captain up among the higher ranks of great movie villains.
Although the story is delivered in a fairly straightforward manner, there’s plenty of room for del Toro to add subtler nuances to add to the film’s rich textures. In one scene, a group of soldiers on horseback are attacked, and as the main action continues in the foreground, one of the horses casually saunters off in the background, one of those happy accidents that would usually end up on the cutting room floor, but del Toro is clever enough to know that it makes the scene more perfect by leaving it in.
Otherwise, the only other issue is the ending, which is very much left up to the viewer’s interpretation, where the overwhelming grim nature of the film could have used something a bit more positive and clear-cut.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is easily one of the most gorgeous films this year, not only in the astounding visuals but also in del Toro’s unique brand of storytelling. It’s a shame that the dark and violent nature of the story sometimes takes away from the sense of wonder del Toro tries to instill in every scene.