Volume 5 Number 1
Pan's Labyrinth is the latest from Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Mimic, Blade II, Hellboy), and his second major film set in Franco's Spain (the decidedly creepy El Espinazo del diablo - "The Devil's Backbone" - rent it, if you haven't). Like Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi and its sequels), you just know this writer is one to follow. Of course, Rodriguez has shelled out more than his share of questionable productions, recently, but so far del Toro hasn't been involved with anything truly ugly or ridiculous. Pan's Labyrinth is no exception.
Pan's Labyrinth is about Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl faced with the loss of her working class father, her mother (Ariadna Gil) finding protection but not love in marriage to the dictator (Sergi López) ultimately responsible for his death and a troubled pregnancy with a child coveted solely as the dictatorial heir. Immersed in fairy stories, Ofelia is ready to believe when confronted with fairies and a faun that insist she is the long lost princess of the Underworld. In the midst of household intrigue between rebels and the fascists, she must face monsters to prove herself and pass through the portal (an ancient stone labyrinth outside the compound) escaping to a life of meaning. As in Mirrormask (Dave McKean, Neil Gaiman), this is a young girl's longing for a way out of her depressing life, a fantastic world, and a quest - only Pan's Labyrinth moves a bit faster.
Like so many of the old fairy tales, this one is about kids, but it's not for kids - and not because there's violence, horror, torture, darkness, etc. They get plenty of that in the nicest of their video games, anime, or whatever else we've ever half-justified them watching, playing, or reading (If they're reading anything of substance, let them alone!). No, it's not for kids for the same reason it's not for most adults who attended without getting all the information - it's got subtitles! Yes, that sounds snobbish; here's something even more snobbish - it is for kids, if they're really smart kids and literate kids. The film requires something that most cinematic fantasies of late do not - sustained patience - the ability to delay gratification to aquire greater meaning.
The film doesn't quite convey the same sense of totalitarian oppression you'll find in almost any other film seriously touching that subject - Children of Men, for example - but does more than V for Vendetta and other recent productions. Besides, Maribel Verdú's character Mercedes gives us just enough heroism in the face of personal risk that we can believe. In fact, in projecting her personal strength as an actress onto the screen, she gives the only real multi-dimensionality to the 'resistance'.
Pan's Labyrinth is, overall, an imperfect story that crackles with many of the same sorts of broken pieces as do the characters it portrays. It has its share of wonder and the bizarre; if you liked Jim Henson's Labyrinth, you may like Pan's Labyrinth for the same reasons: The creatures that inhabit its dark corners have just the right mix of credibility and nightmarish aura - they tickle the areas of imagination we've all felt exploring something old and unkempt. There's just enough creepiness for us to leave their intents and purposes ambiguous.
The lonely, intelligent, disregarded Ophelia, is just what one might hope for: Quieter and darker than Violet Baudelaire or Matilda, she's delightful, except for a significant failure of honor. What makes her character, though, is her credulity. You feel it throughout the film - the way she stretches what could be, what must be, what she needs to be true - into belief. Ultimately, it's this and her simultaneous ability to accept reality, that redeems her, as she fights to rescue her infant brother, even after his own prenatal betrayal.
II. The Fanfare
The following are not failings of the film, but of the expectations and assumptions of the critical world:
First, there's the ethnic, subtitle, South of the border in the midst of an immigration crusade issue: It's as if, whenever something good comes from Mexico, it's not good, it's great, and it's not just great, it's epic and the work of a master. Before you commission a bust of del Toro for your piano, though, just remember Akeelah and the Bee - so good, they sold it at Starbucks. It was good, but there's a fad element here, and far too much gratuitous enthusiasm to see this film clearly. To be really honest about it, you've got to let that go. Otherwise (when it hits DVD), it'll be a coffee-table video - to talk about but not to watch tonight.
Similarly, with the abundant reviews likening this film to Narnia and The Lord of the Rings and labeling it, of all things, high fantasy (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly), anyone who's ever heard that before can only either prepare for disappointment or fail to understand the comparison. It's not that the film falls short of those, which it does; those are epics - this is not. In other words, this isn't even that kind of art. Likewise, if I told you my grandmother was like Margaret Thatcher and you discovered she was a left-wing, hippie activist who wears trashy lingerie in public, you'd have to assume that either I knew nothing about Margaret Thatcher or had very odd ideas about my grandmother.
What is it with the notion that, if something has magical creatures and a magical land, it has to be like Narnia or Tolkien's work? Will they say that when we're making movie versions of the Cthulu mythos? Have they said this about Jason and the Argonauts? Pan's Labyrinth is like Narnia and LOTR to the same degree and in the same sense Narnia and LOTR are like Disney's The Little Mermaid or, for that matter, your last Sunday school telling of David & Goliath. Again, no problem with the film so far, just the silly comparisons - and perhaps the exuberance and self-possessed enthusiasm of those making them. Better comparisons would be with Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Kafka's Metamorphosis, or Shakespeare's The Tempest.
Don't look for political depth, here, either. This is not a telling window on fascism. In fact, the evil in Capitán Vidal (there's no other 'fascist' character of note) is more banal than banal. He tortures detainees for information - well, so do non-fascist states like the United States and every one of her allies. He has the audacity to believe his politics are right - see previous example. Oh, and he's neglectful of his family, and seems to care only about what they represent, not who they are. A whole lot of marriages and families are like that. If we villainized people for that, well... Ibid.
Nor is this a revealing vignette on the turmoil of revolutionary Spain. You'll get more of a look at revolutionary Spain from Evita, and that's about Argentina. True, there are metaphors here. The horrible frog living in the base of a once great tree, devouring bugs and sapping the tree's life. The blind monster that sees only with its hands, sets a sumptuous feast to ensnare its victims, and is responsible for the death of more children than Baal. In that sense, it's as interesting as Lady in the Water (M. Night Shyamalan) - and I mean that you'll either like that sort of lesson-based highbrow art, or you won't. I do, but again, I don't confuse that with an epic in the sense of Beowulf. If you want something a little closer to that, rent The 13th Warrior again, or one of the Dune films.
As far as a 'message', if you really, really like lesson-based art (me, not nearly that much - I can send my own 'messages') you'll be disappointed, if you're being consistent. The heroine fails miserably to be honorable at a crucial moment and this is resolved by giving her... are you ready for this... "another chance"! So if you're looking for a fairy tale in a Barney kind of way, well... yes and no. Second chances don't stop a bullet hole.
In all, and if this review (and critique of reviews) has anything to say, it's this: the film will be much more satisfying if you cast off most comparisons, toss out preconceived notions, and open up to something strange. Finally, then, it can be a genuine fairy tale. This is the only way to see an M. Night Shyamalan or Gerald Di Pego film, and it's the only way to fully enjoy Pan's Labyrinth. If, after seeing it, you don't agree - well reviews are worth exactly what opinions are worth, because that's all they are.
The most common thing said about the film is that it’s a fantasy. But what kind? According to Justin Chang (Variety), it’s "a richly imagined and exquisitely violent fantasy". The Chicago Tribune’s review (Michael Wilmington) casts it as a "a spectacular special-effects fantasy". Stephanie Zacharek is less specific, "one of the great fantasy pictures" (salon.com), echoing Roger Ebert - "One of cinema’s great fantasies". By contrast, going off the deep end is BlackFilm.com, saying the "morbidly bewitching fantasy is an enchanting, escapist fairy tale" (Kam Williams). We’ve already mentioned Lisa Schwarzbaum’s rather unforgiveable "The movie is that original, and that attuned to the power of myth. I don't see why it shouldn't sit on the same altar of High Fantasy as the Lord of the Rings trilogy -- it's that worthy." Ack! Has she actually met Margaret Thatcher? For that matter, we’re not sure how everyone feels about fantasy in the first place: describing it as "going beyond the realm of mere fantasy" (Kim Voynar, Cinematical) or "a movie which calls on fantasy not to distort reality, but to enhance it" (Steven Snyder, Zertinet Movies). A number of comments posted on the web wish that it had even more fantasy, which seems to indicate that, for these viewers, you can measure fantasy. In the midst of all this fantastical talk, I decided to be different and make my review (except for the quotations) fantasy-free.
No reviewers were harmed in the making of this review.