I wish I could say Pan's Labyrinth was one of my favorite movies of the year because it certainly contains one of my favorite sequences of 2006. It happens right about the middle of the movie. A young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) finds herself in a demented underground banquet hall, where she tries to sneak past a sleeping monster in a chair. How the sequence plays out is simply spectacular; it's the stuff of nightmares. And I think this is the kind of serious take that the fantasy genre is often missing, where fantasies and nightmares go hand-in-hand, lending made-up worlds the weight they need to grab ahold of the viewer.
Pan's Labyrinth is quite full of this dark, visionary tone, and maybe it's because the movie's director, Guillermo del Toro, isn't American. What I mean by that is: if you grew up watching American fantasies, they all seem to derive from and cannibalize each other. Del Toro's is immediately different and distinct; and since non-American directors rarely get the production means to express their imagination with fantasy films, watching del Toro's world is truly like watching something for the first time.
Del Toro's fantasy ingredients consist of the kind of visual compositions that a child would imagine, tinged with a distinct extra-cultural flavor. The main mythical creature here, a faun we must assume is named Pan (Doug Jones), is an odd mix of the frightening and the warmhearted -- a gigantic figure who speaks softly, he has a twinkle in his tiny eyes which are situated below swirling marks on his forehead, with ram's horns on the sides. He's serious business though, as when he's angry he's as fierce as any beast; and he feels as real and simultaneously magical as the movie's many other mythical creatures, including a giant toad, morphing fairies, and the above-mentioned scene-stealing monster.
But back to why, despite all this, I can't call Pan's Labyrinth a true favorite -- it isn't entirely a fantasy movie. Its main story actually takes place in a very real scary world, during 1940s Spain under the regime of Francisco Franco after the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia and her mother Carmen (Adriadna Gil) have traveled to a remote military outpost under the command of Carmen's new husband, the vile Captain Vidal (Sergi López). There, Vidal and his troops hunt for the small group of insurgents hiding in the surrounding woods.
Vidal is a viciously cruel man who, in regards to his new family, is only interested in his soon-to-be-born baby, being carried by Carmen. His evil deeds -- murder, torture, and general dictator-like conduct (frankly, the gruesome violence here makes this film inappropriate for children) -- would jolt anyone into sudden reality, but not Ofelia. Already immersed in the fairy tale books she reads, Ofelia finds herself more occupied by the fairies that lead her to Pan, who tells her she might have the soul of a long lost princess of an underworld kingdom, but to prove herself she'll need to pass three tests.
This is a great premise, really, but I couldn't help feeling disappointed in that the two sides of the movie -- Ofelia's enticing fantasy world and Vidal's sadistic reality -- feel so separated from each other. There is the necessary ambiguity that leaves audiences deciding for themselves whether or not Ofelia's world is in her head or might actually be happening, but I think the question becomes moot because we actually spend too little time there. As the film progresses, Vidal's fight with the rebels takes up more and more of center stage, and Ofelia's adventures even start to feel a bit frivolous (as a case in point, take that favorite sequence of mine -- as a stand-alone moment, it's great, but within the larger scheme of things, it carries relatively little weight). The last third of the movie sees a long hiatus from Ofelia's story, as we watch Vidal's stand off with one of his servants, a strong woman named Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) who also happens to be Ofelia's only real-world ally.
Perhaps this was the point -- to show that ultimately reality will defeat fantasy, especially as a child gets older (as it is, Ofelia's at the point of just entering adolescence). It's a courageous, sobering idea (essentially, a child's innocence can only hold on for so long, and its expiration is a mournful but necessary event), but Pan's Labyrinth wants to have it both ways, trying to give its main character a bittersweet escape path in its finale. But the shadow of the real world has already been so greatly cast that such a move feels futile, which is a shame.
Actually, the scenario can also be seen as an act of triumphant defiance, that, even in Vidal's encumbering corrupt world, Ofelia's innocence keeps her incorruptible. But, again, Vidal and Ofelia only marginally cross paths -- most of the time, one barely acknowledges, or wants to acknowledge, the other's presence. Ofelia's attempted obstruction of Vidal's plans towards the end is practically accidental; although her character is tested through Pan's tasks, her innocence is never directly challenged by Vidal. Any kind of victory Ofelia might achieve over him therefore feels like a testament to childhood blinders. Triumphant defiance? Or blissful ignorance? Maybe the film is celebrating both?
In any case, I admire the movie as a whole, but only truly love about half of it. Del Toro's obvious strength here is his forceful vision of a night-time fantasy and his ability to bring that vision to pulsating life. He used Pan's Labyrinth to fry bigger fish, and mostly succeeds; that said, I'd eagerly look forward to any future film of his that may carry the same dramatic weight while embracing a fantasy format from head to toe.
(Released by Picturehouse and rated "R" for graphic violence and some language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.