Reviewed by Galen Strickland
As you should already know, most traditional fairy tales are not just for kids, and they can be quite bleak and frank in dealing with certain frightening aspects of life. This film, directed by Guillermo del Toro, follows in that tradtion, depicting a frightened girl who enters a world of imagination in order to escape a life that is becoming increasingly intolerable. Set in Spain during World War 2, it depicts a garrison of the Loyalist Army tracking remnants of the rebel forces from the previous Spanish Civil War. The Loyalist commander, Captain Vidal, has summoned his new wife to be with him. She is pregnant and very near to term, but also gravely ill. Accompanying her is her daughter from a previous marriage, Ofelia, whom the captain can barely tolerate.
This film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. All of the dialogue is in Spanish with English subtitles, but hopefully that will not hinder a wide acceptance by American audiences, because it is one of the better films I have seen recently. Most of the actors will be unknown to most of you, with the exception being someone you wouldn't recognize anyway since he is in heavy prosthetic makeup throughout. Doug Jones (Hellboy, Doom, Lady in the Water, Fantastic Four 2) plays the Pan of the film's title along with another mythical being Ofelia encounters in her ordeal.
Ofelia is played by twelve-year-old Ivana Baquero, and her assured performance belies her age. Her mother Carmen is played by Ariadna Gil, with Sergi Lopez as her stepfather. Another standout is Maribel Verdú as the servant girl Mercedes, whose brother is among the rebel forces in the nearby mountains..
Ofelia is an avid reader with a vivid imagination. She is fascinated by a stone labyrinth she discovers near the old mill where the soldiers are garrisoned. On her first trip into its heart she meets Pan, who informs her that her soul is that of a princess who escaped from a magical underground kingdom many years before, and it is his duty to help her return to her rightful place. He gives her a book and tells her it will direct her through three trials she must complete before the next full moon. At first the pages are blank, but soon they fill in with pictures and diagrams, along with text which tells her what the first trial will be, which is to retrieve a key she will need in the second trial.
As with many fantasy films of this nature, it will be up to each viewer to decide for themselves if the magical realm depicted is real or just in the mind of the young girl. There is a scene toward the end when Ofelia is conversing with Pan, but Vidal who is observing the situation sees only the girl. In my opinion it doesn't really matter. The most important thing of any story is the moral it imparts, regardless of the actuality of any particular aspect of the tale. In this particular one, the fantasy world mirrors what is happening in the "real" world, and we see that in both instances the same values apply; having the courage of your convictions and perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds, and the willingness to sacrifice yourself for the greater good. It is a lesson it would have been well for Vidal to have learned.
Beautifully photographed and realistically acted, Pan's Labyrinth is a haunting film, and not just because of the fantastical elements. The brutal life of the Spanish peasants trying to fight against the opressive Loyalist regime is also eloquently told, a testament to freedom fighters everywhere. The brutality of Vidal is perhaps too blatant, but that is about the only negative I can think of at the moment. This film deserves all the accolades it has been receiving, and I see no reason it should not also garner the Oscar as well. [Well, what does the Academy know anyway?]
At least the Hugo voters got it right!
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