Pan's Labyrinth review by The Grim Ringler
I have been an unabashed fan of director Guillermo Del Toro since he hit the scene with his first film Cronos. The man had an immediate and distinct style and told stories that took what we knew and turned it on its head. With each film hes gotten better and better and with Pan hes created a film that has captured both the acclaim of fans and of the critics. Here we have a story that is as deep and thoughtful as it is fantastic, and in Del Toro, we fans of horror and dark fantasy have a filmmaker who is on par with writer Clive Barker when it comes to bringing speculative fictions to life.
Its the end of the Spanish Civil War and the forces of rebellion have been quelled but not finished off. A young girl and her pregnant mother are making their way through the wilds of Spain to be with the mothers new husband, a military officer bent on crushing the resistance that remain in the surrounding hills. The girls father was killed during the war and her mother re-married and became pregnant with the baby of the officer, a man she hates, and it is only the love and devotion she has for her mother that keeps her in check around her step-father. The girl retreats into the world of her books in order to get away from the awful war and what it has done to her family, and the reality of living with her new father pushes her nose deeper into them. Upon arriving to her new home though she discovers a mysterious and ancient labyrinth that lies just on the border of her familys property. The house and the land are filled with military machinery and men, her step-father readying things to destroy the last of the local resistance, but here, in this labyrinth, the young girl finds an escape. Within the labyrinth is a faun, a thing that is part man and part animal, who has been waiting for the return of a magical princess from a forgotten kingdom and, upon seeing the girl, he believes she is indeed the lost princess. The girl, frightened at first, is drawn to the faun and the idea of a world where she would be a princess and far away from the war. In order to prove herself she must complete three tasks before the next full moon or else she will lose her one chance to return to her kingdom. The girl sets about the tasks enthusiastically but each one is more dangerous than the last. The first sends her to the heart of a dying old tree where she must coax the toad that lives there to give up a special key it holds. Next she must venture into a dangerous underworld where she must find a special knife before the owner awakens and devours her. Things stall with the second task though as she disobeys the strict orders of the faun and, doing so, loses her chance at even attempting the last task. Yes, she got the knife, but by not following the strict rules she has proven herself unworthy so the faun appears to her in her room, takes the knife, and leaves her to the war. In her daily life things are as bad as theyve ever been. Her mothers pregnancy has taken a turn for the worst after the long journey and she has begun bleeding profusely. In the woods the resistance is growing bolder and, with the help of someone in the house they surround, they are getting their much needed supplies. Things take a deadly turn for everyone when a member of the resistance is captured and tortured in order to get the name of any people who may be aiding him and his comrades but in the house, things are worse than the girl could ever have imagined. When granted one last chance to prove herself to the faun she takes it, but is there really a chance she can be a princess, or has the faun been lying to her all along for his own dark purpose?
Passionate and engaging, this is a rare adult fantasy that will pull at both the mind and heart. The truth of what everything means is left to some debate, and I am glad for that. You can argue the film at least two ways but in the end, both versions still sing of a touching and tragic film about the power of imagination and the horror of war. In this film only imagination and the magic it holds can escape the machinery of war, but even there the shadows of death linger. Pan creates its own mythology and populates it with people and places that seem as if we have known them since childhood. As fantastical as the world of the faun is though, the real world is just as brutal, the girls step-father meting out his own form of justice in the most gruesome of ways. He, like every character here, is all too conscious of death and because of that is so obsessed with the birth of what he knows must be a son that his wife becomes little more than an incubator. His name, he insists, must live on.
The power of the film comes in the acting and Del Toro is a master at using special effects to strengthen not overpower his film. The girl is the key to everything and its her character that holds the audience in the spell of the film. Her love for her mother is equaled only by her hate for her new father and she is willing to do whatever it takes to escape him. The faun is very true to the mythical roots of the creature, selling hope and promising happiness but never quite revealing all that he knows. The renegades are genuine people here, willing to die for their beliefs even as all hope fades.
Many will carp that they dont like foreign films but this is a story that could only be told in this language. You cannot tell a tale of revolution in a foreign land and then paste English atop it. Its silly. The subtitles will distract you from some of the stunning visuals on display but within minutes youll be able to see both words and images and will fall into this world completely.
Del Toro has captured the essence of what it is to be a child given to dreams and fantasies. Yes, there is war, but the world outside of a child is nothing to the world within, and the worlds only they can see and believe in. And in the end its that belief in something greater, be it religion, ones self, or even a world of dark fantasy, that keeps hope alive for the girl and the viewer. This is fantasy film which we are not used to seeing it is dark, it is violent, it is cruel, but at all times it is honest but above all else it believes, as the girl does, in a better world wherever it may lie.
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