Four judges enter the labyrinth, but only one will emerge unscathed.
Our review of Pan's Labyrinth (HD DVD), published January 24th, 2008, is also available.
Unquestionably, 2006 was one of the most impressive recent years for imaginative films. We were offered Terry Gilliam's Tideland, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men, and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. While each of these movies was a breath of fresh air, none is as stunningly imaginative as Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. As a conceptual sequel to The Devil's Backbone, Del Toro uses Pan's Labyrinth as an opportunity to explore some of the ideas that have interested him his entire career, including his lifelong obsession with fairy tales. The result is a film that you feel as well as see, and one that works on numerous levels.
Facts of the Case
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is an imaginative young girl living in the worst possible time in history. It's shortly after the Spanish civil war, and her widowed mother is marrying a harsh Fascist Captain. This places a lot of pressure on Ofelia and her imagination, as her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil, Welcome Home) presses her to put away her fairy tales. Captain Vidal (Sergi López, Dirty Pretty Things), you see, represents everything horribly real about fascism in Spain.
When they arrive at the outpost to which Vidal is assigned, Ofelia escapes into an ancient stone labyrinth of her imagination. It has long since been abandoned, at least by humans. When Ofelia explores the structure, she meets a faun, who immediately recognizes her as the once and future princess of the underworld. To restore her royal state, she just needs to complete three tasks.
Trapped by both harsh reality and possibly harsher fantasy, Ofelia must walk a narrow tightrope between two worlds. A mistake in either world could cause her death. Either way, she won't be able to maintain her childhood innocence for long.
Until this point, Guillermo Del Toro was a genre filmmaker. He did creative and fascinating genre pieces, but each of his earlier films was limited by his adherence to genre conventions. I first noticed him when he made Cronos, a Mexican vampire movie with a twist. It used the vampire genre to chilling effect to explore notions of aging. Next, he made Mimic, a monster movie that explores genetic engineering and pesticide use. Between comic book movies Blade II and Hellboy, he made The Devil's Backbone, an exquisite ghost story that makes a strong statement about war's affects on the most vulnerable in society: children and the elderly.
With Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro has pulled an altogether new rabbit out of his hat. Instead of a genre piece with a subtext of ideas, it is a movie of ideas with a veneer of genre storytelling. Del Toro calls on the history of the Spanish Civil War, while digging deeply into mythology and pre-European pagan rights in order to design the fantasy portions of the film. He blends history and mythology together as magic realism, which is much more popular in written literature. His visual design is inspired by great artists and painters. The result is a truly unique film, one that is both a joy and trial to watch because of the way it transcends both its fairy tale roots as well as its historical setting.
The richness of Pan's Labyrinth is deepened by its subject matter. The historical and fantasy elements of the film are set against each other like chess pieces, with Ofelia trapped in the middle. Del Toro is fully aware of the paradox he creates by placing these two stories together. War movies are tales of destruction, that reveal the human ability to hurt and destroy other human lives. Rarely in cinema has this been expressed so vividly as it is in Pan's Labyrinth. The Captain is a heartless, vicious man, who finds pleasure in mutilation and disfigurement. He is so dedicated to his ideals that he enjoys torturing the captured communists, and killing the men his troops capture. In the midst of such pain and suffering, humanity yearns and longs for something better, something lost. Fantasy has always been a way for us escape to that better, lost place. After all, Tolkien created Middle Earth as a way of escaping the horrors of World War I. Fantasy worlds are a way for us to recover something beautiful in the world, during moments when it feels like that beauty has been lost forever. We leap to join Ofelia in this fantasy, because it offers an escape from the horrors that surround her.
Quickly, though, we discover that the faun's fantastic world isn't the safest place of refuge. This world is also full of horror, danger, and death. Ofelia doesn't notice right away, because it so closely resembles the books that she loves to read. But there is horror in the faun's tasks for her, in the knife that she must retrieve, and in the pile of children's shoes that the Pale Man has collected. Del Toro crafted Pan's Labyrinth as a deconstruction of the childhood fantasy experience. Mythology is full of pain, suffering, and horror, but we suppress those elements when we tell these stories to our children, just as we try to hide the reality of war from them. Neither type of horror can be ignored here.
And it's horror that makes this such an intense and unique viewing experience. Pan's Labyrinth isn't a film to be watched; it's to be experienced. It churns around in your gut, leaving you breathless and stunned. There is little catharsis at the end; we're left to decide for ourselves how much of Ofelia's fantasy world is real and how much is imagined. Viewers of Pan's Labyrinth bring themselves into the film, and their own worldviews will determine how they interpret the ending. Few can have a mild response, though. When I went to see it at a local arthouse theater, I could feel the audience breathe and react in unison, taken in completely by Del Toro's emotional manipulation. When the film ended, we all sat silently as the credits rolled, until the woman directly behind me bitterly remarked: "I like a little less horror with my fantasy." I was angry at first that she could miss the point so completely. Later, though, I realized that she wasn't willing to experience a film—she just wanted two hours of escapist viewing. I suppose that means Pan's Labyrinth isn't for everyone, but I sincerely feel for anyone who is not taken in by its magic.
After all, Del Toro packed in every kind of movie magic at his disposal. His fluid camera work has never been better. He's still one of the few directors who understands how to use CGI in subtle and creative ways. He juxtaposes the visual differences between the fantasy and war scenes, creating two distinct realms that also flow together. Each element of the film has echoes in other areas, creating a brilliantly unified whole. The pacing and editing is wound as precisely as Vidal's watch. Considering the nature of the story, the characters are also surprisingly developed. Even Vidal has some highly human moments. This man could have been merely a monster, but by the end we understand why he is so driven for success and honor. Ivana Banquero's performance highlights that Del Toro is a director who knows how to work with children. Her performance hits all the right notes, even at improbable moments. More than just a mythological figure, the faun is complex also, as he subtly manipulates Ofelia for his own purposes. Doug Jones (Hellboy) injects an incredible amount of personality into the ancient woodland creature. The supporting cast is also impressive, with more memorable characters than can be mentioned here. With all of these rich details, Pan's Labyrinth holds up well to repeat viewings. There are new things to discover each time, almost as though the film itself changes ever so slightly between viewings.
Fortunately, New Line has done justice to Del Toro's masterpiece with this Platinum Edition. As usual, Del Toro was heavily involved in the production of this disc, and it shows. The video transfer is stunning, if slightly short of reference quality. Detail, color, and black levels are all excellent, but the compression level is occasionally too high. Only so much can get crammed onto one disc, after all. Much of the space here is taken up by the Dolby 5.1 EX and DTS ES 6.1 tracks. While the video transfer is a bit short of perfect, the sound is some of the best I've heard on DVD. Both tracks have been remastered for home theater, which makes for a very immersive experience. I wish more directors would realize how much this adds to the experience of a film. While Pan's Labyrinth will truly benefit from a high-definition transfer down the road, there's no reason to wait. This disc is great for the time being.
Then the extras begin. The first disc has a brief introduction from Del Toro, as well as a commentary track. It's an excellent commentary, as he takes us on a guided tour of his latest project. It's a phenomenal track, one that dives deeply into the film without spoiling it.
The second disc is packed quite full of content as well. There are several featurettes, containing a lot of valuable material and no studio fluff. We get to explore Doug Jones' daily pain as The Faun and The Pale Man. We learn how carefully Del Toro sets up his color design, and what that adds to his production. We get an in-depth exploration of fairy tale mythology, and how it was used to create such a richly textured film.
Even more fascinating is a peek into Del Toro's notebook, where we see how some of the ideas have developed over the past 15 years, in forming what would eventually become Pan's Labyrinth. Many of these pages flow out to even more interview footage. On top of that, we get a look at some of the storyboards, a VFX plate comparison, as well as some DVD animated comics that give us more information about the mythological creatures.
Finally, there is a highly intelligent discussion between Del Toro, Alphonse Cuarón (Children of Men), and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). We learn that these three Mexican directors consult with each other on all of their projects. It helps to unify our understanding of this exciting Mexican new wave. You could spend several hours exploring this second disc, and all of it would be worth your time.
As the dust settles in the first part of 2007, it's impossible to deny that last year was a vintage year for film. The great films of 2006 are strangely unified, exploring the themes of innocence, childhood, violence, imagination, and the depths of human evil. Pan's Labyrinth is the best of these: an exquisitely crafted and perfectly realized masterpiece of war, fantasy, and horror. It is a film that needs to be experienced by everyone who loves film or fairy tales. It will probably be a while before we see something else this enchanting.
Though the details of the events are unclear, Guillermo Del Toro is free to go. He has finally realized the potential he's been hinting at for years.
The Greatest Act of Courage, by Judge Bill Gibron
The greatest act of courage in any war is the act of self-sacrifice. No, not the kind on the field of battle. The sort of commitment being discussed is never to be confused with the sense of duty that's derived from picking up arms and heading off to defend God and country. While definitely a sign of bravery and stoicism, it's a deed that usually occurs under a governmental mandate or, even worse, a conscription that eliminates all personal choice. Under these circumstances, the threat to one's safety is viewed as courageous, but countermanded as part of one's patriotic duty. No, pure heroism arrives when someone forfeits their freedom willingly, happily, or even purposefully. Dying in the name of a cause is one thing. Dying when you're unsure of the outcome, convinced only that it's the right thing to do, represents the finest individual contribution anyone can make in the name of altruism.
Thematically, Guillermo Del Toro's brilliant El Libertino del Fauno—or as we know it, Pan's Labyrinth—is a perfect illustration of this point. Without spoiling a single moment of this magnificent movie, one can look to the interconnected characters within the story and see the ways in which sacrifice determined and undermined their lives. Outside the Captain's countryside headquarters, we have the mother/daughter duo of Carmen and Ofelia. One is pregnant with the Fascist's future son. The other is a little girl lost in an unending world of horror and helplessness. While most of the movie focuses on Ofelia's slow descent into magic-oriented madness (a way of coping with the blood-soaked situations she must endure), it is her desperately ill parent who provides the most illuminating example of daring. She was willing to literally sleep with the enemy to save herself and her innocent offspring.
Inside the Captain's domain, two servants also conspire to destroy him. Mercedes is the harried housekeeper, trying to balance the needs of the Resistance (which her brother bravely fights for) with her own clandestine efforts to remain undetected and undeterred. She knows that death is around every corner in this well-secured home, and all it takes is the wrong move—or trusting the wrong person—to uncover her treason. It's the same with shaggy dog Dr. Ferreiro. Since his role is more important in the Captain's eyes (he is keeping Carmen alive—at least long enough to save the baby), his is the easier deceit. In fact, the physician is so brazen in his behavior that it's not a question of how he gets caught, but when. Together, these internal forces easily see their part in the paradigm. If they only protect themselves, others (and maybe the country itself) will be destroyed. However, by slowly subverting matters from their position, no matter the personal consequence, they can protect those they care about.
While one can write elaborate epistles about the imagery Del Toro uses, visuals that fuse myth with the macabre, the imagination of a child with the true-to-life terrors of a country at war, it's the human component of Pan's Labyrinth that makes it far more forceful. While the images emphasize and underscore the narrative needs, said symbols also complement the concerns of all under the Captain's corrupt gaze. All four individuals appear to be living in a world of unfathomable dread, an unreality draped in the designs of power-mad people who can only see victory in terms of body counts and corpses. That Ofelia is the only one willing to confront the forces of evil outwardly, to take on the Giant Tree Toad, the Pale Man, and, in the end, The Captain himself, speaks to her sense of fearlessness and commitment. The rest, however, have their own more subtle ways of sacrificing themselves for the cause. In the end, it's not a matter of whether they win or lose. No, the act itself is more than enough to establish a pathway through the moral maze that twists through the war-torn country and the people who populate it.
War and the Limits of the Escapism, by Judge Jennifer Malkowski
***Spoiler alert!*** If you don't want to know the end of Pan's Labyrinth—or the Spanish Civil War—read no further.
"A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. She dreamed of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, eluding her keepers, the Princess escaped. Once outside, the brightness blinded her and erased every trace of the past from her memory. She forgot who she was and where she came from. Her body suffered cold, sickness, and pain. Eventually, she died. However, her father, the King, always knew that the Princess' soul would return, perhaps in another body, in another place, at another time…"
In the human world, we know cold, sickness, and pain. And we know war. War destroys innocence faster than almost anything in the human world, obscuring the blue skies, the soft breeze, and the sunshine, making us forget anything better that might have come before. The characters of Pan's Labyrinth live amidst war—a wretched, gruesome war whose darkness infects even the fantasies of a little girl, Ofelia. Del Toro matches the horrors of war with magical horrors of his own creation, step for step. Scenes like the one with a face graphically smashed in by a blunt object are answered by fearsome fantasy sequences showcasing sickly pale monsters with loose skin and eyeballs in their palms. In a reality so consumed by terrifying violence, the imagination is also engulfed in darkness.
The potential power of Pan's imagined world to affect Ofelia's reality is a red herring in Pan's Labyrinth, a shockingly dark war movie whose only message of hope may burn a little to dimly for some audiences. Del Toro primes us to expect some kind of last-minute magical realism miracle to save Ofelia. She's not just a silly little girl escaping into her imagination—she's a reincarnated Princess whose fairy-tale creatures will surely slay the evil Captain Vidal before the credits roll. But in a war film whose war happens to be the Spanish Civil War, happy endings are hard to justify. The rebel forces hiding in the woods are the tattered remains of "the good guys," and though they win the battle in Pan's Labyrinth, they have already lost the war. The fascist Nationalists represented by Captain Vidal defeated the liberal Republicans and the ensuing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco would endure until the mid '70s.
This bleak setting for Del Toro's story is no coincidence, as it matches up perfectly with the way the film locates hope and the possibility of good. In a country settling in for three decades of fascist suppressions of freedom and creativity, escape into a magical imagined realm is an appealing fantasy, no matter how dark and gruesome that realm may be. And in an external reality with such a bleak political outlook, escape is sometimes the only way to protect one's own morality and integrity. Given a choice between their lives and their sense of right and wrong, the characters in this film choose their values and death becomes their escape, their reward. When one's power to do good is exhausted, one can still refuse to engage in evil, as the doctor and Ofelia do. And with their martyr's deaths, they buy back a little piece of that innocence that war threatens to obliterate. They find their way back to that "underground realm, where there are no lies or pain" in the peace of death. As Ofelia returns to the Princess's Kingdom, reunited with her mother and father, we realize that her magical world cannot overcome her war-torn reality—but it, and she, can remain untouched.
This thing got 170 out of 178 positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (that's a 96 percent, kids), so what's the hubbub about?, by Judge Ryan Keefer
With the way the Oscars were conducted this year, it seemed like Pan's Labyrinth (a.k.a. El Laberinto del Fauno) would rack up everything, as it won awards in each of the early technical categories it was nominated for (Art Direction and Makeup, and a surprising one for Cinematography), before losing the Best Foreign Language award to Germany's The Lives of Others. Roger Ebert's throwaway phrase to describe Pan's Labyrinth might be its most accurate and yet does the film an injustice: it is "a fairy tale for grown-ups that has surprising emotional power." The film takes place in 1944 Spain, where fascism is the norm rather than the exception. A young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, Rottweiler) and her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil, Don Juan) move to the Spanish countryside, where Carmen's second husband (and Ofelia's stepfather) Captain Vidal (Sergi López, Hombres Felices) resides. The Captain is a cold, heartless person when meting out punishment to any resistance forces his soldiers encounter, and he also treats Ofelia rather poorly, almost not acknowledging her existence. He is more concerned with Carmen, who is pregnant with his son. To be more exact, he slowly but convincingly puts Carmen into a position where her spirit and vitality are taken away, because the Captain so very much wants a son to continue his name.
At least the feeling of apathy is mutual, as Ofelia doesn't like the captain either. However at his mother's request, she tries to be at least cordial to him. Her real father died during the war, and it seems to be implied during a scene in the movie that the captain perhaps may have become acquainted with Carmen in a rather unseemly manner, that he might have been the one to kill her husband. On the trip to the captain's compound, Ofelia discovers a fairy, who leads her into a labyrinth where she meets Pan (Doug Jones, Hellboy), who is relieved that Ofelia has come to claim her royal rights, as she was a princess in an earlier life. Ofelia is shocked to hear this news, but when she is presented with a group of challenges to complete, she decides to try to do so.
There are a lot of things that occur throughout Pan's that take you through a myriad of feelings. Ofelia's situation is one that many fatherless children experience when their mother re-marries, she distrusts her stepfather and the bond she shares with her mother is stronger than any relationship that one could envision. She does not think she has the abilities to carry out what is asked of her, but she finds within herself a strength that she didn't know she had. Is it a fairy tale for grown ups? Absolutely, there are too many violent moments that can cause a child some sleepless nights. What violence there is in the movie is pretty graphic, and Vidal, as an antagonist, has the blackest heart of anyone in recent memory.
However, the film's vision is clearly due to the special effects wizardry of Guillermo del Toro (Chronos), whose knack for creating a unique fantasy world is unlike anything that you've seen. I can't emphasize that last part enough—the world that del Toro has created for Ofelia to experience is one that is so immersive and compelling, you easily forget that it's for Ofelia, it's everyone's trip to take. What has probably made the film so successful is that del Toro combines this mythical world he's managed to create with all of the right elements of live action storytelling into a script (which he wrote) that makes us all share in the emotion.
Along with the story, the performances themselves are excellent. Gil and López are characters whose natures are polar opposites from one another, but the main performance lies in Baquero's 12-year-old shoes, and she gives us all the portrait of a girl looking to escape her current existence with one of eternal health and happiness for her, her mother and her soon to be brother. In Paquero and Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine you have, for my money, two of the best performances of 2006, as both girls display a strength and resiliency that transcend their respective positions in life. Isn't that what we all want?
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