Monday, October 11, 2010

"Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)

Starring Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones and Maribel Verdu
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro

(There will be spoilers of the end of this movie.  Beware.)

Guillermo del Toro has a fabulously inventive visual mind.  His eye for fantastical creatures and settings, for creating haunting and lyrical moments in film is unparalleled in the semi-mainstream.  It's hard to call del Toro mainstream because for the most part, I'm not sure anyone really knows who he is outside of comic book fans.  Ask any Joe Schmoe on the street if they know the films of Guillermo del Toro and they'll probably give you a blank stare or maybe you'll be lucky enough that someone actually saw "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" and bothered to read the credits.

"Pan's Labyrinth" (or, perhaps as it more accurately should be titled, 'The Faun's Labyrinth') is a fairy tale-influenced period drama.  That's right.  The story concerns a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who is brought with her very pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to live in the mountains of Spain where her step-father, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez i Ayats) leads a campaign against local guerrilla fighters.   There, she discovers an ancient stone maze.  One night, a creature she takes to be a fairy leads her into the maze to the center where she encounters a faun (Doug Jones), a sort of half-human, half-goat creature who tells her that she is the reincarnation of an ancient princess, and must complete three tasks before the full moon so that she may enter a mythical realm to be reunited with her father.

Meanwhile, Ofelia's mother grows more ill and Captain Vidal more desperate to root out the enemies in the woods.  His primary housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) turns out to be a collaborator against Vidal's fascist regime.  She sneaks information and supplies to the men in the woods when she can, one of whom is the man she loves.  But she also comes to love Ofelia as a daughter, and Ofelia returns her affection. 

Ofelia's three tasks bring her into conflict with the other people in her life, who don't believe in magic and fairy tales and simply think she's misbehaving.  When she travels into a tree to defeat a massive, evil toad, she ruins the dress she is supposed to wear to an important dinner party that evening.  When Vidal discovers that Ofelia has placed a supposedly magical mandrake root under her mother's bed to help her get better, he's furious at her.  And the tasks themselves bring no small amount of danger to Ofelia.  Her second task pits her against a creature with no eyes who sits motionless at a table covered in delicious food... but who has an appetite for children. 

As things grow more dire in the outside world, Ofelia continues to attempt to retreat into the world of magic.  Ofelia's ultimate task will bring the entire story to a crashing head as the mountain men attack, and Vidal faces his ultimate fate at their hands.  She must steal her newborn brother away from the evil Vidal and use his blood to open the portal to the Underground Realm.  Is Ofelia's mythical kingdom real?  Is she actually a reincarnated princess, or are these just figments of her mind to allow her to escape the oppressive abuse of Vidal and her life? The ending leaves this ambiguous, but with a hopeful bent.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is a gorgeous film.  Del Toro has populated it with several truly inventive creatures that are brought to life incredibly well.  Doug Jones (who performed as Abe Sapien for del Toro's "Hellboy" movies) plays both the faun and the "pale man" child-eater, and attacks both with absolute ferocity.  These might be fairy tale creatures, but in del Toro's world, that means they're dangerous and outright frightening.  These are not Disney fairy tale creatures... not even old-school, hardcore Disney fairy tale creatures. 

What's surprising given how the film was marketed is how little time the film actually spends with the strange creatures and fairy tale settings.  Most of the movie takes place in the "real world," where Ofelia must deal with her wretched stepfather, ailing mother, and her own loneliness.  Large amounts of time are also dedicated to the cat and mouse game between Vidal and Mercedes and the woodsmen.  It's really only at the end when these two disparate storylines come together. 

The final climactic moments of the film are heartwrenching, and it's strange to see something so scary and horrific look so beautiful.  When Vidal shoots Ofelia in the gut and leaves her to bleed out in the labyrinth, I sat straight up.  I fully expected Mercedes and the others to come running in and rescue her at the last moment... but it doesn't happen.  It's a testament to del Toro's storytelling capabilities that I didn't recognize that the film ends much the same way it begins: with Ofelia on the ground, bleeding.  He telegraphed it a mile away, and I missed it.  But I was so enthralled with watching this movie, that I left that information behind. 

That's a kind of film experience that I love.  Lots of times, I'm watching something and I'm trying to decode it... to see if I can stay one step ahead of the movie.  But "Pan's Labyrinth" just swept me up in its beauty and its characters and I was happy to simply let go and watch the film unfold on its own. 

Is it a perfect film experience?  No.  Somewhere around the middle of the movie, I noticed that I was looking at my watch a few times, and there can be pacing issues where Ofelia disappears for and we focus on Vidal or Mercedes for just a little too long.  But the final third of the movie picked me right back up.  This is a minor complaint.  But it's one I've had about the other films of del Toro's that I've seen - he can sometimes get lost and start to wander in the worlds he's created.  I can't blame him for that, since they are incredible worlds, full of life and exquisite detail, but it means that sometimes his talents as a storyteller suffer.  Perhaps the leanest film of his that I've seen is "Blade 2," which rarely does any meandering and simply moves from action sequence to action sequence with all the subtlety of a bulldozer.  I'll fully admit, though, that I've not seen several of his movies.  Maybe I'm wrong.  But I digress...

"Pan's Labyrinth" is also in Spanish - that's not a complaint.  I can't stand watching English dubs of foreign movies because they rarely get things right.  You often get one of two things: totally flat performances with no life or energy in them, or outrageously overblown line readings that are simply too ridiculous to take seriously.  I always recommend watching foreign films in their original language so that you can really get the original actor's performance.  And with a truly great foreign film, after a few moments, you won't even notice that you're reading subtitles.  I certainly didn't; the subtitles in "Pan's Labyrinth" are great (and apparently were written by del Toro himself). 

Watch "Pan's Labyrinth."  Seriously.