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Pan’s Labyrinth

The cover of the DVD for Pan’s Labyrinth says “From the Director of Blade II and Hellboy”.  Statements like these for any film are usually pretty polarizing.  Sometimes it ends up being “from the producer and 2 of the writers that brought you Ernest Goes to Camp”.  That’s an example of when it goes wrong and probably makes people actively avoid the movie.  Other times it’s an instant sell, as in the first time I saw a preview for Inception, knew nothing about it, but saw “from the director of the Dark Knight”.  I was in, I didn’t need to see anything else.  Speaking of being in, if it’s a Guillermo del Toro movie, it deserves to be watched.  I enjoyed Blade 2 and Hellboy just as the packaging hoped I would, but really the marketing dollars should have gone back and tagged THOSE movies as “from the director of Pan’s Labyrinth”.  Combining fascist Spain in 1944 with a traditional fairy tale would seem to be an odd combination, and it is.  Del Toro embraces it anyway; the result is a moving story of a girl who gets caught in a war she wants nothing to do with and a world she would do anything to call home.

The girl is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), no more than ten or eleven years old.  The film opens with her going to live at a Spanish Army base with her new stepfather, the base’s stern leader Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez).  She’s accompanying her mother who is pregnant with the Captain’s child.  To say the Captain is controlling is an understatement, just think about the kind of man who would demand his pregnant wife come stay with him at an army base involved in almost constant fighting with the Spanish Resistance.  It’s no place for a child to be born or a child to be raised, as Ofelia quickly learns.  Being ignored by the Captain and with her mother dealing with a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia retreats into her books and tries to ignore the horrors around her, until a small fairy leads her into a small hedge maze one night.  There she meets The Faun, who tells her that she is in fact a reincarnation of a Princess in the underworld from which he hails, and that if she can complete three tasks before the next full moon, she can come home and resume her place with her father the king.

Ivana Baquero as Ofelia

The first standout of the film is how the special effects creating the Faun.  Part wood, part goat, part old wise man, his movements, voice, and creaking sounds all point to Del Toro’s absolute mastery over creating amazing and disturbing creatures.  The aforementioned Blade 2 and Hellboy series are memorable primarily because of the creature effects and this remains true for Pans Labyrinth as well.  However, for the first time in a Del Toro movie, the plot doesn’t seem to just move along so we can get to the next visual treat.  Even as Ofelia does fantastical things for the Faun, the war rages on around her and Del Toro spends almost as much attention on it as he does his dark fairy tale.  I’ll get back to Ofelia in a second, but the war part works due to the very strong performances of Lopez as Vidal and Maribel Verdu as Mercedes, a housekeeper who is the only one that at least sort of watches out for Ofelia and has increasing concern about the brash actions by Lopez.  Almost all of Del Toro’s work  has a strong supernatural element to it so I a bit surprised and very impressed at how effective the “realistic” parts of this film were.  The sense of gravitas behind these scenes was impressive, be it the tension of what Vidal would do to a rebel or the action of a firefight in the woods.

Del Toro definitely knows what he’s good at though, which is the more out there stuff, and this film delivers in spades.  I love a good completely screwed up creature in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft, and this film contains the best one I’ve ever seen in the Pale Man.  I won’t go spoiling anything that happens with him and he’s not even in the film for very long, but it’s easily one of the best horror I can remember viewing.  Doug Jones, the actor who plays both the Faun and the Pale Man, creates some of the most visually arresting movements to ever scare the crap out of audiences.  Much credit to Baquero to keep her head straight acting against all this stuff, which can’t have been easy, especially for an eleven year old.  As good as Lopez and even Jones are, she is absolutely the star of this movie.  She perfectly captures the sentiment of a child even in the insane situations she finds herself in.  She’s certainly amazed and awed by her meeting with the Faun and all the other various creatures she encounters, but never in the adult “oh my god wtf is happening!” kind of way.  To her, none of this seems strange, capturing that fairy tale feeling that Del Toro would definitely go for.

Supposedly the At the Mountains of Madness movie Del Toro was going to do fell through. I'm so depressed, LOOK AT THIS HOW AWESOME WOULD THAT MOVIE HAVE BEEN. Ok, breathe Elrood....the Pale Man is still great.

I should mention that the film is in Spanish, so prepare for some subtitle action if you’re not a Spanish speaker.  I once saw a man return this movie to a Best Buy because “there’s no english, I don’t want to READ!”  I don’t think that’s any of you readers, considering this entire site is reading.  It’s sad that there are those that will miss out though just because it’s a foreign film, or because it’s a “kids movie”.  It is most assuredly not, some of the scenes of the ongoing war are hard to watch, and seriously if I was a kid and saw the Pale Man I wouldn’t sleep for months.  Look at that picture again!  Yikes.  Trivia for this movie includes that theaters in Mexico had to put up a NOT FOR CHILDREN sign because parents were bringing kids to the film due to its title and young star.  On a surface level that is true, but really, the film a traditional fairy tale that is meant for us to embrace it as we would embrace other fairy tales as children.  Del Toro is a visual master, that much is clear from all his films.  Pan’s Labyrinth shows him capable of being just a master of movie making in general and I urge anybody who hasn’t seen this film to check it out, if only to support him.  Fairy tale mixed with war starring an eleven year old girl, totally in Spanish.  Hard to sell to a studio.  Captivating to watch.

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