Pan’s Labyrinth is not your average fairy tale. Writer/Director/Mexican Visionary Guillermo del Toro (Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy) has crafted a wicked blend of visual extravagance, gruesome horror, and surreal fantasy. In combining these elements, he has made one of the most gut-wrenching films ever to star an unsuspecting 11-year-old girl.
That is what some people, if not me, will truly love about Pan’s Labyrinth—it’s a brutal karate chop to the head. Take your kids to see the latest cartoon flick but keep them far away from this one, or they just might have nightmares straight into adolescence. The story is about a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who journeys with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to war-torn Spain in 1944, following Franco’s victory. They head up North to bunk with Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a relentlessly evil leader who likes to torture the rebels; too bad he will soon be the father figure of their household.
Ofelia, always nose-deep in a fairy tale, refuses to view this irrational brute as her new daddy. Under the guidance of Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), she discovers a magical old garden which in her eyes, harbors a mystical labyrinth. It is guarded by a mischievous faun named Pan, a half-man, half-goat, who is “very old, very tall, and smells like Earth.” He identifies her as Princess Moanna, a lost spirit that must complete three difficult tasks before the full moon in order to reign eternally in the Underworld. If she can succeed at these duties, she just might escape the horror movie that is her life.
In a Disney movie, this just might be possible, but not in del Toro’s world. Instead, her fantasy land becomes just as heinous as the merciless real world she is trying to avoid. Her actual life consists of post-war gloom, a weak mother suffering from a problematic pregnancy, and a drought of people her own age to play with. In contrast, her fantasies involve a hideous man-beast with eyes on his palms (resembling John from Saw, except sitting at the dinner table), devoured fairies, and unfairly immoral tasks. What do you do when it hurts to be alive, and there is no solace to be found in dreams?
Pan’s Labyrinth is very tough to stomach, and even trickier to market. Who, exactly, is this movie made for? At the core, it’s the story of a doomed young girl who cannot find true happiness or peace in any area of her life; not exactly an escapist fantasy flick to view with friends over popcorn and Nestle Crunch bars. The excess of vicious violence—faces bashed in with rods, victims subjected to line-ups of torture tools, a knife ripped through a mouth—may satisfy horror fans, but it’s not entertaining brutality, unless you scored a few giggles out of Schindler’s List.
The visuals alone are mind-blowing, and arguably the movie's strongest asset. Del toro and Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro turn it into a visceral experience, using an enhanced color palette that makes every shot look like a work of art. However, the story itself is a truly painful account, one that makes Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia seem light and giddy by comparison. Pan’s Labyrinth may effectively be the feel-bad movie of the year, but I prefer my magical adventures served with a little less anguish.
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