Cast: Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Genre: Fantasy / drama
Running Time: 112 minutes
It's Spain, 1944, and Ofélia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), have come to live with Carmen's new husband, Vidal (Sergi López), a sadistic captain in the Civil Guard charged with overseeing a mountainous rebel zone. While Vidal is hard at work keeping the locals under his thumb, Carmen suffers through a troubled pregnancy and Ofélia, although befriended by spirited housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), spends most of her time alone. Exploring not far from home, she encounters a charismatic faun-like creature residing in an underground labyrinth. This frightening figure (played by Doug Jones) tells Ofélia of a great destiny, for which she must prove herself worthy by completing three tasks. Meanwhile, life is getting more precarious for everyone as Vidal's thugs clash with resistance fighters.
This sixth film from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Mimic) has all the attributes of a great fairytale - magic, danger, mythical beings - and features a charming performance by 11-year-old Ivana Baquero. But its blend of nightmarish fantasy and violent reality makes this film just a tad too scary for the Harry Potter set. Unavoidably, but it's a pity given the film's relevance for younger viewers as an exploration of heroism and questions of personal responsibility. What does it really mean to be courageous? It's one thing to be bold when the risks and rewards are clear but quite another in the face of ambiguity. Do you obey the strongest voice, the one urging you on to glory? Or do you listen for a quieter truth, perhaps from within?
Pan's Labyrinth creates a unique world, a microcosm of a dark era. The performances are all excellent and the visual language compelling. The story is divided distinctly between the depiction of a community oppressed by fascism and an elliptical sojourn into a surrealistic netherworld. While transitions from one to the other are sometimes unsatisfying, enough emotional tension is generated to keep things moving. Ofélia doesn't know quite what the ultimate prize will be but, given the direness of her and her mother's situation, trusts that all is lost unless she succeeds in her quest. But will her magical adventures melt away to nothing in the cold light of day? This uncertainty is constant, even up to the surprising finale, and infuses the film with a powerful sense of disquiet.
It's Del Toro's feel for pathos that most distinguishes Pan's Labyrinth. There are no easy answers even for one as pure of heart as Ofélia, just as in war there is no escape for the young and vulnerable. The victims of conflict, the film seems to say, may be innocent but they are neither unthinking nor unknowing. Almost helpless and with the deck stacked against them, still they fight for survival. And yet, the choice of a child protagonist has a downside. As a child sees the world in simple terms, so does this screenplay in the end: evil cannot hide itself and the good will always fight when the time comes. It's tempting to wonder what this film this could have been with a few lines blurred, some murkier depths plumbed. Less Pan, more labyrinth.
Rating : ***1/2