Pan's Labyrinth Review

Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy-tale; dark and dangerous, as all such tales should be. It’s undoubtedly in the purest Grimm tradition, steering away from the sugar-coating of Victorian retellings and using fantasy and magic as metaphors for the real-life horrors of the Spanish Civil War. It’s an operatic film in the grand style and if it doesn’t provide as much food for thought as one might wish, it’s still a majestic piece of entertainment from Guillermo del Toro, a director who is one of the most reliably inventive filmmakers currently working.

The film is set in Spain during the aftermath of the Civil War when the Fascist takeover led to an atmosphere of paranoia and recrimination. Ofelia, a quiet and imaginative ten year old, is taken by her mother to meet her new stepfather, a captain in Franco’s army named Vidal. Unhappy in her new surroundings and concerned for her pregnant and ailing mother, Ofelia retreats into a secret world where, in a dilapidated labyrinth behind the house, she meets Pan (Jones), a faun who tells her that she is really a princess who is heir to an underground kingdom. In order to prove her right to rule, she must complete three tasks before the moon becomes full – and no-one, but no-one, is allowed to know.

The visual magic of this film is in the great tradition of the best Hollywood fantasies but it’s marked out by Guillermo del Toro’s quite remarkable visionary imagination. The links between real life and fantasy in the film are really quite tenuous but through judicious cross-cutting and self-reference, the movie seems like an organic whole where one world complements another. If it’s sometimes a little confused – some viewers find the allusive, ambivalent ending quite infuriating – this doesn’t matter when every frame resounds with passion. Del Toro, as we’ve seen in his previous work, does nothing by halves, and setting out to make a fairy tale, he produces a story as memorable as anything by the old masters of the form. The fantastic elements are brought off with complete success - as in most fantasy films, a great deal rests on the skills of the set design, make-up and costume departments and they certainly don’t disappoint here. Period detail for the scenes set in 1944 is pitch-perfect and establishes the real context which is so essential for this fantasy to work. But the creation of the dream world is something else entirely. The sets are beautiful and the various creatures manage to be both suitably ludicrous (as fairy-tale monsters are) and rather frightening.

Mention must be made here of Doug Jones who plays the dual role of Pan and the Pale Man and manages to make them unique characters – I doubt anyone would guess that they were the same actor. There’s a delicious frission of fear generated throughout with even the most benevolent creatures carrying a certain threat and the set-piece involving the aforementioned pale creature is destined to become a horror classic – don’t you just want to scream at the screen, “Don’t eat the food!!”

But movie fantasies are ten-a-penny these days. What made this particularly distinctive for me is its literary nature. There’s an explosive joy in storytelling and invention for its own sake here which is highly reminiscent of those two great Hispanic writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, the opening narration about “the Underground Realm where there are no lies or pain” could come straight out of a tale from Borges’ Labyrinths. Ofelia is a bookish teenager and the story takes its cue from all the books she has read – reminding me of Umberto Eco’s most recent novel. But it also has a foot in the realm of English Gothic fiction, Victorian romanticism and even the writings of Lewis Carroll and E. Nesbit.

Ivana Baquero is an ideal heroine, wide-eyed and at a slight remove from events, and she plays quite beautifully against Ariadna Gill as her mother and Maribel Verdu as the good hearted Mercedes – a very different role from her most famous part in Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Needless to say, the film is as visually fluid as you'd expect from del Toro's usual collaborator, DP Guillermo Navarro. The use of colour is particularly notable. Credit is also due to the production designer Eugenio Caballero and editor Bernat Vilaplana. But the emotional impact of the film - one which leaves you feeling like you've just been in a train wreck - is greatly enhanced by Javier Navarrete's rich orchestral music score which hits just the right tone, much as it did in The Devil's Backbone.

Is there a flaw in this wondrous tapestry? Well, as a comment on the post-war period in Spain it’s rather simplistic. I would have liked to see a more shaded portrait of the Captain. He begins as an intriguingly ambiguous figure, his penchant for beating suspects to death tempered by a love of the inner-workings of watches and an apparent love for his new bride. But he soon becomes a black-hearted villain and although Sergi Lopez plays him very well, the character soon becomes obvious and a bit tiresome. This has the effect of unbalancing the film in the second half when Ofelia’s journeys into the magic world are so much more gripping than what’s going on in the real world. This is, naturally, just a personal reaction but I think that in creating a nasty villain, del Toro has sacrificed a valuable edge of subtlety. In a lesser work, this would be less noticeable.

Pan’s Labyrinth received a 15 rating from the BBFC and it’s most certainly not a children’s film. But I would suggest that it’s a film which intelligent (and parentally supervised) 12 year olds would love, especially those who are hooked on fantastic literature, and a damn good way of getting them into subtitled movies. I’d certainly much rather see them watching this than some of the meretricious violent films which receive a 12A these days. Yes, Del Toro’s film is violent, sometimes cruel and often shocking but it brings home with extraordinary force the ways in which adult brutality impact on the world of a child and so older children may well be among its most receptive viewers. It also presents violence with consequences, sometimes shattering ones and is consequently exquisitely moral. However, regardless of your opinions on this matter, in making a fairy tale which is primarily for adults, del Toro has succeeded brilliantly. I can’t imagine anyone watching this movie and not being bowled over by the sheer imaginative force of the filmmaking.

The Disc

This R3 Korean Limited Edition release is worth buying for the gorgeous packaging alone, a leather book effect case with the title embossed and a short booklet (in English) included. This booklet contains sketches for the movie and an introduction to the story. You also get a small key which may be useless but can go in my drawer along with the (equally useless thus far) Blair Witch Project penknife.

The anamorphic 1.85:1 picture is generally good and, in some respects, excellent. The colours are simply spectacular throughout and make the most of the deliberately golden, burnished look of the film. These are so striking that they make the faults of the transfer less objectionable. There is a definite over-enhancement throughout and, surprisingly, occasional artefacts pop up. On the whole, the film looks more than acceptable but the flaws are more common than I would have expected.

The DTS 5.1 track, in Spanish, is flawless with crisp dialogue, plenty of atmospheric ambient sound and rich music. From what I heard, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also very good.

The only extra on the first disc is the theatrical trailer.

The second disc consists of a forty-five minute making-of featurette broken up into five sections. This is in Spanish with Korean subtitles but no English. This is rather odd since the menu is in English and the intertitles in the featurette are in English but never mind. For extras, you need to go for the Optimum R2 edition which is loaded with them and also has a director's commentary. Accordingly, I haven't given a score for extras here.

A splendid movie then, but a somewhat disappointing DVD release. The picture quality is the main problem but the lack of English extras may make some purchasers prefer to get the UK edition instead.

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