A fairy tale for adults and the most twisted take on the essential elements of “Alice in Wonderland” currently on film.
Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) are on their way to join Carmen’s new husband, Vidal (Sergi López). Old enough to understand that Vidal is not her father, young Ofelia instead takes solace in her storybook beliefs of the fey and their hidden worlds of magic. Through the purest happenstance, she finds herself at the gates of Pan’s labyrinth, an old ruin dated older than the nearby millhouse Vidal has made as his base of operation. While the Vidal makes his war crushing the local resistance, Ofelia finds herself both in a race to save her mother’s life from the complications of carrying an unborn brother and to solve an ancient riddle to reclaim the throne of a mythical fairy princess reborn.
What will become immediately evident upon the opening of this native-language Spanish film is that writer/director Guillermo del Toro sees the beautiful horror in everything and refuses to pull even the slightest punch. Falling back on CGI only when he must and realizing everything he can via sets and effects, Pan’s Labyrinth spends more time in “the real world” than one might hope, but this viewpoint is important in showing the contrast between one small girl’s imagination and the undeniable possibility that everything happening is very real, even if only to her. del Toro’s balancing act between the believable and the bizarre is so precise that, even at the very end, he betrays nothing, instead letting his viewers decide what was real or not.
The backdrop of war and all its horrors has often paralleled horror films; who better to keep going in the face of horror than seasoned warriors armed to the teeth who’ve been trained to kill or be killed? In making young Ofelia the subject of the film, it is she who becomes the warrior armed with only her wit, and those who cannot (or do not) see the world as she does seem unprepared to deal with it rather than unafraid. Vidal is such an imposing figure as a Hitler-like leader that all who encounter him cower, but he seems to be no concern to Ofelia and her tasks, merely another obstacle that she must overcome.
There were probably more such parallels and metaphors missed in a single showing, but as is the advantage of a self-contained film, a happy ending for the innocent involved remains in doubt throughout the film. Like a gloomy sky that holds the sun hostage for days, viewers can easily begin to doubt the little girl had any chance to succeed at all, and yet del Toro is able to dangle the smallest of carrots in the face of disaster to keep a glimmer of hope alive. Unlike Hellboy, where all Hellboy must do is arrive for us to know he’ll be victorious, Ofelia seems very much fated and alone, and yet she goes on again and again in spite of poor omen and certain doom.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale for adults, complete with blood, dismemberment, gunshot wounds, lacerations, monsters, and yes, even the devouring of children. It is a story told both from the numb, accepting view of an adult unwilling to question an authority of evil and from the eyes of child where even the tiniest glimmer of hope pierces the darkness like a shard of starlight. And from beginning to end both visually and musically, horror dances and hides behind the scenes to the whim of its current favorite director.
(a three and a half skull recommendation out of four)