While some of the imagery of del Toro's 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) resembles his successful translation of Mignola's Hellboy, this film is actually a thematic sequel to his 2001 Spanish Language film The Devil's Backbone (El Espinazo del diablo). Both films detail young people past the age of reason, but not yet experiencing "the age of not believing", as they settle into their new digs, hopefully just far enough away from the Spanish Civil War for comfort. In both cases, the young person is skeptical and frightened by their new, cloistered home and the situations found therein, and both find solace and terror in the realm of the Supernatural that lies just beneath the "real world".
The Devil's Backbone was a fine film in its own right. If anything Pan's Labyrinth is more excessive than its predecessor. The violence is heavier, the horror is arguably scarier, the fantasy, more spectacular and fairy-tale oriented, and the overall story is much heavier. Amazingly, though, Pan's Labyrinth never comes off as "too much". Strangely, it's just right and immensely satisfying.
In fact, it's a kitten's whisker away from perfect!
That said, it should be known that Pan's Labyrinth, though a fabulous fantasy about an enchanting child... is not for children. In fact, it's not for a whole hell of a lot of adults I know. It takes an open mind, an open heart and an iron constitution. If you think I'm exaggerating, watch the treatment of the hunting party and tell me if you want your grandma watching this with you.
But let's talk about the plot. Young Ivana Baquero is Ofelia, a creative little girl with a sharp eye and a deep love for her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil). Whom she's not so crazy about is her mommy's new husband, the sickly sadistic Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), the positively Hitlerian leader of a military camp, just barely holding off the revolutionary commies hiding in the woods. As Ofelia fails to settle in to life at the camp, she discovers that there's a little somethin'-somethin' else hiding in the woods.
As the narrated introduction tells us, there is someone laying in wait for the Princess of the Underworld (just a kingdom underground, nothing creepy). This someone lives inside a descent within the center of an ancient stone maze, the origins of which are unknown. When Ofelia follows an insect (which is really a wood nymph in disguise) through the Labyrinth to meet the Fauno (aka "Pan"), he is immediately convinced that Ofelia is, in fact, the resurrected queen he has waited for.
However, to be sure, he must give her three tasks to perform perfectly, lest she prove herself unready, or prove herself to be a fraud. But Ofelia has more than just this to worry over. Her mother's pregnancy is not going great, and her new stepfather's demeanor might easily be confused with that of a Rabid Cobra if his smile had just a little more warmth to it.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Civil War is in full swing, as are the clashing politics of the day. There is little question of which side del Toro is shining his big grin over, however, he is careful to show the conflict as complex, with good and bad on both sides and a number of innocent folks caught in the middle. Somewhere in that middle are the camp's housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the camp's Doctor Ferreiro (Álex Angulo). However, the most pained player in all of this is Ofelia herself.
Pan's Labyrinth is a wonder to look upon at every corner, nook and cranny. The screen is filled with beauty and ugliness juxtaposed in a strange reconciliation that Keats himself would tip his brim to. There is also an amazing respect paid to the truly, deeply surreal (bordering on the Acid-Trippy) permeating the film's every frame. Even so, Pan's Labyrinth somehow manages to be strikingly realistic and gritty. Just when one is about to get swept away by the fantasy, the reality bashes one's face in. Just when one is emotionally brought down by the drama, a doorway opens and down the rabbit hole we go.
And that's not to say that even the Fantasy is altogether that pleasant. In fact, in many, or even most parts, the unreal is truly frightening, dipping into those realms reminiscent of Clive Barker or Neil Gaiman's worst nightmares. This serves to keep the audience on its toes, never knowing what's good or what's bad. Even the old Faun himself never loses that air of mystery and menace, even at his most kindly.
This is, of course, a credit not just to the fascinating makeup job (by David Martí and Montse Ribé), but also to the actor filling Pan's hooves. That's none other than the very talented Doug Jones. This film is universally well acted, and you'd be hard pressed to take much issue with any of the thespians found here, including, and especially Baquero. However, Doug Jones is an experience all his own.
Jones was the only member of the cast and crew of this joint Mexican/ Spanish production... who spoke no Espanol! All of his lines were memorized (and later dubbed by narrator Pablo Adán). Reportedly, Jones had to learn Baquero's lines as well (and learn to read her lips, as he couldn't hear a thing in that gosh darned mask of his) so that he could react properly. His changing of voice and face at the drop of a horn from gentle and kind goat-man to pit-dwelling devil could be called a treat for the eyes, if it wasn't so hand-wringingly disturbing. Bravo! Doug es bueno.
The makeup (amazing not just on Dougglez) isn't the only thing that is breathtaking here. The art and set direction by Eugenio Caballero and Pilar Revuelta are positively mind-blowing, while the cinematography by Guillermo Navarro takes in every inch of the natural and the invented with a striking camera eye. The music of Javier Navarrete not only holds this all together, but adds a rich texture to an already brilliant film.
But it's Guillermo del Toro himself who deserves the greatest praise. Not only did he direct this movie beautifully, but he also wrote the screenplay based on ideas he had been fleshing out for years (and once, almost lost). This is one amazing fantasy he's created here... and I'm just glad he's letting us play in his sandbox.
It's hard to find any significant flaws in this film. Though I will openly admit that it's not for all tastes, I can say that just about anyone can, at the very least, respect what del Toro and crew have achieved here. Del Toro as the writer has created a fantasy film to be taken seriously, while del Toro the director has risen to the occasion of bringing his vision to the screen intact, while never coming off as self-indulgent or egotistical. Still, this isn't "the feel good movie of the year" in any language. There's more violence, blood, dismemberment, torture, metaphor and depravity in this film than in the complete Kill Bill epic and Lost season One put together. Couple that with the fact that there's less humor here than in a depressed Robert Smith songbook, and you've got a heavy movie.
Heavy, yet worth every second of the viewing. Pan's Labyrinth is incredible, and incredibly worth seeing. It's a winding tale worthy of its title and worthy of Five Stars out of Five. This is truly the fantasy fairy tale for adults... with the emphasis on Adults. This isn't your Babysitter's Fairy Tale... in fact, it's downright Grimm! It's also a fantasy story worth taking seriously, and it really, really works! Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got one more drastic task to perform... I'm kind of hungry for some grapes, first though. Nah... I just want to drink more wine. That's me... Pan's Greatest Critic!