CAPSULE: Guillermo del Toro gives us one of the masterpieces of the fantasy film. A child's fairy tale fantasies help to shape events in a military outpost after the Spanish Civil War. This is a film that works as a fantasy film and even better as a war film. Del Toro is one of the finest fantasy filmmakers in the world and this is his finest film. Rating: high +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Back in the 1960s Mexican science fiction, horror, and fantasy films started showing up on television and to a lesser extent in theaters. Many would feature as stars professional wrestlers such as Santo and/or homegrown monsters such as the Aztec Mummy or Nostradamus the Vampire. The main attraction of these films was probably the humorously low budgets. Occasionally the lack of money would be obviously reining back some Mexican art director who obviously had a creative visual imagination. The production design was gaudy but usually better than the script. It is easy to see these films as the progenitors of the visually exquisite films of Guillermo del Toro.
To get a feel for these films see http://www.horror-wood.com/murray.htm and http://www.horror-wood.com/meximon.htm
Del Toro grew up in Mexico with programs like "The Outer Limits" and "The Twilight Zone", and he combined those with Mexican style to create his first horror film, CRONOS. It was so beautiful it was released as to the art film circuit in this country rather than to the multiplexes. To date del Toro has released four horror films as well as two films based on graphic novels. I personally am not fond of the graphic novel films, but each horror film is a visual feast. Those films are CRONOS, MIMIC, THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, and now PAN'S LABYRINTH. The latter is not just his masterpiece; it is perhaps one of the great fantasy films.
A story is told to us of a princess in an underground kingdom who wanted to escape to the human world but sadly who died trying. Now her spirit possesses others. Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) is reading this story. These fairy tales are her escape from an unpleasant real world of 1944 post-civil-war Spain. This is a very bad time for Ofelia. Her mother is having a problem pregnancy. Both are mistreated by Ofelia's stepfather, Capitán Vidal, an officer in Francisco Franco's army who rules his outpost as a sadistic tyrant. The fairy tale world and the real world seemingly could not be more different or more widely separated, but they come together at Vidal's outpost. The post is in a forest and nearby there is a great stone labyrinth. Ofelia has been haunted by a flying insect, a walking stick. (Del Toro seems to have a fondness for images of insects and for clockwork. Both appear frequently in his horror films and both are seen in this film.) And now the insect turns into a fairy-- Ofelia recognizes it from her fairy book. The fairy beckons Ofelia come outside and into the labyrinth. At the center of the labyrinth Ofelia finds a passage to a world below and in the passage is a faun. The faun (Doug Jones) tells Ofelia that she is really a princess and that if she can prove her nobility with three tasks she can take her rightful position in the world below. The story wanders back and forth between the story of Ofelia's three tasks and the tyranny of Vidal who is determined to destroy the resistance fighters hiding in the forest.
The structure of the story is much like del Toro's THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE. That story was set in the Spanish civil war. It was a ghost story inset into a story of a killer preying on a boys' school and orphanage. In that film the ghost story was the more inventive, the story of the killer more mundane. Though both stories were handled in fine style. Here, though the main story line is violent and painful to watch, it is as compelling as the fantasy story. The captain (played by Sergi López) is trying to cement the locals' loyalty to the Franco regime and at the same time to mercilessly crush the resistance fighters in the nearby forest.
One virtue that makes writer/director Guillermo del Toro a great filmmaker is that his stories seem fresh and new. Too many horror films seem to be retelling of stories that other filmmakers (or even the same filmmaker) has made. Del Toro chooses a chapter of history rarely scene in films. And he does not have some over-used theme like having the dead of the civil war or demons come for vengeance. Too many films are like that. Transfusing this period with a fairy tale is totally unexpected and he makes a very new film. He may borrow a little piece of a source such as Fritz Leiber's CONJURE WIFE, but so much else in the film is fresh and new that one does not mind. Del Toro's use of vibrant color makes the film feel surreal and his startling visual images are as creative and original as Jean Cocteau's. The faun is a beautiful artistic rendering of a faun. It is hard to believe this is supposed to be the same creature as the much less imaginatively rendered Mr. Tumnus in THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. (The is no indication other than the American title that this is intended to be the faun Pan. The Spanish title would be THE LABYRINTH OF THE FAUN.)
I consider this one of the great fantasy films. For me it compares favorably with THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN matching their creativity. I would give it a high +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. Warning: Just because it is a fantasy film does not mean I recommend it as a family film. This is most definitely not a film for children. Most of the horrific scenes are in the non-fantasy story line. There is painful, nightmarish carnage onscreen and implied. This film is suggestive enough of painful images that members of my audience were seen to wince and leave the room.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper