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Pan's Labyrinth

Guillermo del Toro's critically acclaimed 2006 dark fantasy film.

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Magical realism start in equal measure but then . . .

  • Jul 24, 2007
Pros: The fable's fabulous and the other two stories are compelling. I found nothing to dislike

Cons: The violence can be a little over the top.

The Bottom Line: Fables keep us protected at times, but for the remainder of dangerous times, fables can take on a different atmosphere.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.

The British can write and make mysteries, particularly detective stories, better than anyone else. The Italians can tell a love story that borders on sappy but never quite makes it and always has some level of bitter with the sweet. The fairly wide world of Spanish speakers has the ability to create adult fables (magical realism) that in other mouths of other cultures are just silly stories.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno the original title) brings a particularly harsh version of magical realism when compared to another one of the genre like Like Water for Chocolate. I haven’t seen that many films lately that have bullets flying, but I think it will be a long time before I see a film with more of them than Pan’s Labyrinth.

In 1944, Spain was fighting a different war than the neighbors over the Pyrenees. Here the Republicans were fighting against the fascist Franco regime. Captain Vidal (an ironic name in some respects) played by Sergi Lopez lives at an outpost keeping an eye on the nearby mountains that are home to a group of rag-tag Republicans. Into this tense situation, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travel. Carmen is married to and pregnant by the captain. Her pregnancy is difficult and the travel was against doctor’s orders. On the way, Ofelia makes her first sighting of what she sees as a fairy. They get to the outpost and Ofelia quickly sees the place for the anxiety magnet it is. So she turns to her imagination to alleviate it as much as possible. Attached to the outpost is an ancient hedge-maze (not a true labyrinth as we use the term now, but the maze leads to that). Following the fairy the night of her arrival she discovers, through a Faun (Doug Jones) whose parts are made of branches and trunks instead of skin and fur, that she is the princess of the underworld and can retain her throne if she complete three tasks by the next full moon.

Ofelia also learns that the house matron, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is a part of the Republican Resistance. She and Mercedes form a fast and abiding friendship. This is especially true since her mother is bedridden during the latter part of her pregnancy.

From here things get dangerous for Ofelia in both the world of the Captain and in the world of the Faun. The tasks seem that they might be gross at first become truly dangerous as this story develops. Due to breaking a rule in her fable world, she is shut out of it just as the danger of the Captain's world increases dramatically. Saying more would give away too much about all three worlds (Ofelia’s, Vidal’s, and Mercedes’s).

Possible plot spoilers in the analysis

I didn’t realize until now that Sr. del Toro also directed The Devil’s Backbone (which I also reviewed and is the only ‘helpful’ movie rating I’ve gotten in over a year—a plug of mild self-pity). I’m pleased to say that I find Pan’s Labyrinth as a far more complete story (though each movie contains multiple parallels, and if I had liked Backbone, then I might have recognized these while watching Pan. Sr. del Toro’s movies along with Hellboy and Blade II are all dark, eerie, at times quite scary; but they all have a special eye given to the presentation of the story. We must not forget that the director is responsible for more than just telling a tale; a director isn’t a story-teller in a traditional way, she or he is responsible for making the story as pleasing to the eye as the story demands. The movies he picks allow him to use much imagination and a reasonable number of special effects to add a shadowy whimsy to his films.

Magical realism is a fragile creature, too much pressure in any direction and the creature collapses into a silly Cinderella. Sr. del Toro knew how much pressure to apply to each of the story’s parts to make it all work very well.

I will admit to being a bit disappointed that the fabulous scenes were not greater in number. I understand why the amount used was correct, even if my eye wanted more. Ofelia is nearing the beginnings of womanhood, as such, her imagination which essentially creates the Faun’s Labyrinth is darker than it would be if she were younger and also more tenuous than it would be if she were even just two years younger. In a way, Pan’s Labyrinth is her swansong fable to herself.

Captain Vidal has his own fable. He is a cold man who doesn’t care about his wife as anything but the seed pod of the son she is carrying. This is 1944, decades prior to the sonogram, so it makes perfect sense when the doctor asks him why he is sure she is carrying a boy. The Captain’s response is simply, “Don’t f**k with me.” He also spends appreciable time keeping a pocket watch, whose glass face is cracked, running. The legend is that his father smashed the watch so his son would know the moment of his death. His belief is that as long as the watch is running, he is invincible.

Mercedes, the doctor, and the rest of the Republicans do not have fables. You can argue that they cannot afford the distraction because of their struggle. Fables are created by people who have a continuity of time and safety to make them, keep them, and add to them. Fables are not made in battle, but only after the combatants return. The Republicans are always in a state of readiness to fight, so fables are not welcome in their severely pragmatic world.

At the end, it is fitting that Vidal’s and Ofelia’s fables are dispelled. In the most vicious scene in any movie I’ve seen in ages, Captain Vidal takes his son from Ofelia who has taken him into the hedge-maze on the orders of the Faun who has given her a second chance to reclaim her throne. When we see the scene from the captain’s perspective, Ofelia is talking to empty air. Here he takes the son and shoots Ofelia in the stomach (this is telling since through the rest of the movie he is careful to shoot everyone but one other in the head, even if they are already dead). His cruelty means he will leave this girl to suffer. He leaves the hedge-maze only to face the contingent of Republicans waiting for him.

We discover that Ofelia’s story is almost entirely in her head and moments later, after Vidal realizes that his watch is still running but that he will not make it out of this situation alive—his fable is lost too.

What finally makes this film work so well is that the fabulous is not at all childish; it is a mix of the child-like and the recognition that the world is more complex than a child can tend to understand. At first, this adds a level of strange beauty to what is a very tense situation. Later it becomes the reason for us to despise the things that men do when we see a man destroy the barer of this imaginary milieu. Ofelia’s mother confronts her screaming that there is no magic in the world. The mother’s words may sting, but the bullet does far more than that. Even for adults, a world minus magic is a cold place.


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December 15, 2010
wow. I just featured one of your other reviews and now I feel that I should have featured this also. Thanks!
More Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto ... reviews
review by . November 06, 2009
Alice in Wonderland is one of the most beloved stories of our time, It tells of a young girl who falls down a rabbit hole and get's transported to another world where strange creatures rule and the possibilities of magic and adventure are endless. But it's been nearly 144 years since that story first appeared and ever since then film makers have been trying to tell the story a different way for years, But thanks to Guillermo del Toro we have the greatest spin off of all, El Laberinto del Fauno, …
Quick Tip by . June 10, 2010
Visually stunning; interesting plot
Quick Tip by . June 02, 2010
So, so, so, so CREEPY! I hated the main dude. I was Terrified. *shudders*
review by . December 03, 2009
posted in Reel Overseas
The fantasy genre doesn't lend itself well to movies, for whatever reason. Before this decade, fantasy films were much more likely to end up on MST3K or, at best, in a "Most Nostalgic Kids Films of the 80's" list.       Perhaps it's the Spanish-language tendency towards "magical realism" instead of the English-language trend towards Tolkein and Dungeons & Dragons, but Pan's Labyrinth shatters those expectations almost immediately, by melding a little girl's …
review by . September 24, 2009
   Very compelling tale of a young girl who is forced with her sickly and ready to conceive mother, to live with her cruel father in the 1930’s war torn Spanish countryside.  Her father is El Capitan of a military force seeking out rebels against the government.  He loves to torture and brutally murder anybody he catches, whether they are rebels or not (warning: some of the scenes are so graphic that they are difficult to watch if you have a weak stomach).  The girl’s …
review by . November 21, 2009
     Pan's Labyrinth takes place in Spain in May and June, 1944, after the Spanish civil war, during the Franquist repression. Also present is the main character Ofelia's fantasy world which centers around an overgrown abandoned labyrinth. Ofelia's stepfather, the Falangist Captain Vidal, viciously hunts the Spanish Maquis, guerrillas who fight against the Franco regime in the region, while Ofelia's pregnant mother grows increasingly ill. Ofelia meets several strange and magical …
review by . May 15, 2009
Centering around a lonely 12-year old girl named Ofelia with a sickly preger mother, a sadistically cruel stepfather, and a kindly handmaiden--Ofelia escapes into a fairytale world of her imagination. Guided by a fairy she discovers an ancient, crumbling labyrinth guarded by a faun who discloses her true destiny--she is Princess Moanna--but to prove herself she must complete three increasingly challenging and dangerous tasks; The tasks have to be completed before the full moon.     The …
review by . May 21, 2009
It is 1944, and 12-year old Ofelia and her mother are going to a military outpost in the Spanish countryside to live with her new stepfather, a sadistic army captain.   There, Ofelia discovers an old stone maze that leads to an underground world of fairies and adventures while above ground, the captain is closing in on a rag-tag band of insurgents.     This remarkable movie is alternately beautiful and grotesque, cruel and fantastic.  Ofelia's …
Quick Tip by . November 06, 2009
Really amazing film. Extremely thought provoking & beautifully shot. Made me feel like a child again even though it's not a childrens film.
review by . March 21, 2009
Very compelling tale of a young girl who is forced with her sickly and ready to conceive mother, to live with her cruel father in the 1930's war torn Spanish countryside. Her father is El Capitan of a military force seeking out rebels against the government. He loves to torture and brutally murder anybody he catches, whether they are rebels or not (warning: some of the scenes are so graphic that they are difficult to watch if you have a weak stomach). The girl's means of blocking out all this cruelty …
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Paul Savage ()
I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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Inspired by the Brothers Grimm, Jorge Luis Borges, and Guillermo del Toro's own unlimited imagination,Pan's Labyrinthis a fairytale for adults. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) may only be 12, but the worlds she inhabits, both above and below ground, are dark as anything del Toro has conjured. Set in rural Spain, circa 1944, Ofelia and her widowed mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil,Belle Epoque), have just moved into an abandoned mill with Carmen's new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López,With a Friend like Harry). Carmen is pregnant with his son. Other than her sickly mother and kindly housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú,Y Tu Mamá También), the dreamy Ofelia is on her own. Vidal, an exceedingly cruel man, couldn't be bothered. He has informers to torture. Ofelia soon finds that an entire universe exists below the mill. Her guide is the persuasive Faun (Doug Jones,Mimic). As her mother grows weaker, Ofelia spends more and more time in the satyr's labyrinth. He offers to help her out of her predicament if she'll complete three treacherous tasks. Ofelia is willing to try, but does this alternate reality really exist or is it all in her head? Del Toro leaves that up to the viewer to decide in a beautiful, yet brutal twin toThe Devil's Backbone, which was also haunted by the ghost of Franco. Though it lacks the humor ofHellboy,Pan's Labyrinthrepresents Guillermo Del Toro at the top of his considerable game.--Kathleen C. Fennessy
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