A film review by Craig J. Koban



2006, R, 138 mins.

Ofelia: Ivana Baquero / Mercedes: Maribel Verdu / Vidal: Sergi Lopez / Carmen: Ariadna Gil / Doctor: Alex Angulo / Pan/Pale Man: Doug Jones /

Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toroís  PANíS LABYRINTH is a film of strange contradictions.  On a visual level, it is one of 2006ís great, opulent feasts for the eyes.  It contains imagery and sights that inspire legitimate awe and wonder. 

De Toro Ė much like his fellow Mexican directors that have recently emerged Ė is primarily gifted when it comes to imaginative and evocative art direction and set design.  PANíS LABYRINTH uses state of the art CG visual effects with atmospheric and moody cinematography to create a thoroughly intoxicating on-screen universe.  Like the great escapist fantasies, the film works by working on us.  It certainly attains a level of transcending, out-of-body allure.

Yet, beyond the filmís dense and stylistic visual palette, PANíS LABYRINTH is unrelentingly downbeat and depressing.  On a positive, the film wisely remembers that the tradition of the fairy tales of our past appeased to both adult and young audiences.  I feel that the best kind of fairy tales bridge the gap between the two.  PANíS LABYRINTH is a fairy tale with fantastical elements, but it is most certainly not a fairy tale for children. 

With disturbing imagery, haunting camera work and lighting, and in-your-face graphic violence, del Toro obviously seems more interested in enticing older viewers.  Ironically, the main character is a child, whose wide-eyed innocence is entranced by a lush, mystical world that takes her away from her hellish reality.  The choice here to tell the film from the childís point of view is somewhat strange: children viewers will identify with her, but the film is so unrelentingly macabre, desolate, and gruesome that no child in the world would be able to make it through PANíS LABYRINTH without having nightmares for weeks on end.

I guess thatís why the film left a strange and unsavory taste in my mouth.  Yes, de Toroís fantasy is clearly aimed at viewers well past adolescence and it contains such a dark, depraved, and downtrodden sensibility.  Surely, there is nothing worse than an escapist film that panders down to audience members as if they were infants.  However, the film bathes itself in such ubiquitous misery and suffering that it all but drains out the chief ingredient that I yearn for in fantasies: a sense of fun and exuberance.  The film has visuals that are enjoyable on a level of appreciating their craft, but beyond them lays a story of cruelty and horror.  Watching PANíS LABYRINTH is never fun or exciting.  By the end of it, I felt more disturbed and troubled than I did uplifted and excited.  The film is so harsh and uncompromising that it forgets that the root of all good fairy tales is a sense of whimsicality and liveliness. 

PANíS LABYRINTH sets its fantasy in the realm of reality, in its case mid-1940ís Spain.  At this time the country is ruled by a fascist regime that is being challenged by resistance fighters who hope to topple their dictatorial means.  It is a vile and oppressive time, and young Ofelia (in a terrific performance by Ivana Baquero) finds herself trapped amidst all of the chaos.  Her father has just died, who was a victim of all of the bloody battles that rage on in her country.  Her mother (Adriana Gil) still lives, but she was in such a fragile and vulnerable state that she was forced to marry the horrendously tyrannical and manipulative Captain Vidal (the chilling and monstrous Sergi Lopez), whose methods are calculating in their viciousness.  There is a formality to the Captain, who is Ė at times Ė a man of determination and focus, but this is only matched by his remarkable cruelty and inhuman taste for torture.

Ofelia does not like the man (can you blame her?) and has equal distaste for not only her mother being married to the fascist tyrant, but also for the fact that she is carrying his child.  What she yearns for on a daily basis is some manner of escape.  One day she explores the lands around her new home (the Captainís rural outpost) and to her surprise she finds an ancient labyrinth that is carved out of centuries-old rock formations.  The sight peaks her sense of exploration: what she soon discovers is that inside the labyrinth lays creatures of the mythological past - fauns and fairies.  In one of the filmís best early scenes we see one of the fairies (in large insect form) entice the young and inquisitive Ofelia to discover more about the world that lurks beyond her imagination.  If I was as young as Ofelia, the sight of this giant bug would have scared the hell out of me, but never mind.

The story then weaves back and forth between the mythic world of the labyrinth and the hellish and violent times that Ofelia occupies.  To a young child living under the threat of constant attacks by rebels against her deplorable stepfather that makes her skin crawl, escaping to a world of make-believe and fantasy seems enticing.  On a nightly basis she begins to explore beyond the labyrinth and meets creatures odd, exotic, and a bit terrifying.  Insects as large as shoes, slimy toads that could swallow you whole, and horrifying monsters with eyes in their hands populate this world.  One of them, a faun named Pan (Doug Jones) meets up with Ofelia during one fateful night.  Pan is an amazing achievement of stunning makeup and virtuoso costume and makeup design.  He has the head of a goat and the body of a warped, decaying tree.  Amazingly, the creature was done practically on set without being computer rendered, and the result is astonishing.

Pan reveals a surprise to Ofelia: she is the long lost princess of the Underworld and the daughter of its King.  He desperately wants her to divorce herself from her world and to finally return to the mystical world where she belongs.  Of course, Pan will only allow her to make a triumphant return if she completes three quests to prove her worth.  If she is able to complete all of them before the next full moon then she will be welcomed back with open arms.  Any deviation from Panís instructions will result in permanent exile.  Predictably, she does not faithfully follow his instructions, which causes some near-fatal setbacks.

In order to fulfill her tasks, Pan gives Ofelia The Book of Crossroads.  It gives her all of the hints she will need to be successful.  She opens the book and decides to explore the world that the faun introduced to her.  The film here bristles with a creepy originality and gothic spirit with the set pieces.  Her first task is to retrieve a golden key from the belly of a giant toad that lives beneath a huge fig tree (she succeeds by tricking it to eat three magic stones, but not without getting ďslimmedí).  The toad eventually vomits up the key after eating a cocktail of giant bugs and magic stones that Ofelia concocts.  Yuck.

Her second task goes less successfully.  The faun instructs her to take some magic chalk and draw herself a door that will take her to an underground hall.  There she will find a huge banquet table filled with food and deserts.  At the front of the table is a disturbing and slumbering monster known as Pale Man.  The faun wants Ofelia to unlock one of the three boxes nearby the feast and to take whatever she finds inside.  He also gives her one other vital piece of advice: do not eat anything from the table, no matter how enticed she may become.  Ofelia does not obey and grabs a couple of grapes and eats them.  Soon, Pale Man comes to life and lurches towards Ofelia.  It grabs two of the fairies that had accompanied her and chews off their heads, slurping up the blood that comes from their stumps.  Ofelia should have clued into his cannibalistic treachery from the murals on the walls, which shows Pale Man catching and devouring human babies.  Needless to say, she narrowly escapes, but Pan is greatly displeased with her.

Juxtaposed with these moments of the fantasy world are scenes in reality which deal with Ofeliaís stepfather and her mother, who is battling a difficult and painful pregnancy.  She overhears Vidal telling his doctor that he could care less if the mother dies; only his baby and legacy matter.  Even worse is the fact that the doctor and a servant of Vidal's are revealed to be sympathizers to the rebels (they have been supplying them with valuable Intel and food).  Vidal discovers this and methodically and horrifically tortures one of the captured rebels.  He soon sets his sights on the servant and the doctor.  Meanwhile, Ofeliaís mother is dying and may not make it through childbirth.  Desperate and tired, Ofelia seeks out the faun one last time for a second chance for her to prove her worthiness to return to the magical world once and for all.

PANíS LABYRINTH has been unfairly praised its daring originality (a cursory look at some past fantasy films like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and Jim Hensonís LABYRINTH shows that they are all quite similar in narrative: a young character is thrust into a world of magic and creatures and is forced to learn lessons of disobedience and personal choice).  There are also some definitive echoes to Hayoa Miyazaki's SPIRITED AWAY and THE WIZARD OF OZ.  Also, Images of fauns and labyrinths have dominated popular mythology through the ages. 

Where PANíS LABYRINTH does earn points is for its execution of familiar themes and constructs.   The visuals of the film are extraordinarily exquisite and powerful.  Many moments are quite memorable, such as the first appearance of Pan, the wretched and slinky mannerisms of Pale Man, and the panoramic shots of the underground world, filmed with an eye for detail and visual density.  More than anything, del Toro deserves praise as a director with a singular vision.  PANíS LABYRINTH is one of the great looking fantasies of the last few years that is equally elaborate and eerily beautiful.

However, I still question the filmís underlining motives and target audience.  The lessons it wants to teach are decidedly more child-centric - despite being a hard R-rated film - and the filmís focus is squarely from the prerogative of a child.  Interestingly, the film plays around with the nature of reality (is Ofelia dreaming of the magical world or is it real?).  Perhaps the underground kingdom and universe is Ofeliaís subconscious way of dealing with the grim circumstances that she finds herself thrust into.  The film, on these levels, is kind of intriguing.  However, the overwhelming tone of PANíS LABYRINTH is emotionally draining and disturbing.  Its time period is a unique choice, and many individual scenes with Vidal and his actions against the rebels could have made a compelling film in their own right.  Yet, these sequences are so politically laced and violent that they all but drown out the excitement of the film.  Moreover, the underground kingdom is such a dark, murky, and frightening environment that how Ofelia would find solace in it is beyond me.

The film is categorically gruesome and stomach churning at times.  Many scenes are punctuated by such haunting brutality; itís almost as if de Toro has a voyeuristic pleasure in the mayhem.  Sometimes the graphic carnage is taken to gratuitous levels to the point of puerile showmanship, like del Toro is almost more entranced by showing us what he can do more than by saying something profound .  One scene involving Vidal sewing up a disgustingly horrific knife gash on his cheek is kind of needless and redundant.  The film sometimes comes across as being a bit too excessive for its own good.

Considering Guillermo del Toroís film resume (he made forgettable horror films like MIMIC and HELLBOY), itís somewhat surprising to see that his latest fantasy is a masterfully realized bit of make-believe.  PANíS LABYRINTH genuinely intrigues with its bold and extravagant sights and del Toro spares no expense at using film technology to create creatures and vistas of real power.  The film is a marvelous visual odyssey that creates unforgettable imagery.  Yet, it is also unyielding as an adult fairy tale that uses R-rated viciousness and bloodshed to the point of becoming an unqualified downer.  When the credits rolled by I was both amazed and disturbed.  PANíS LABYRINTH is both peculiar and intriguing.  Itís beautifully mounted, yet repellently hard to sit through at times.  Itís altogether rare that a film left in me such conflicting feelings and emotions.  It is a stunning achievement of filmmaking artifice swallowed by disturbing violence.  I can say that I appreciated its inventiveness, but cannot admit to finding joyous escape in its misery and despair, unless one finds enjoyable escapism in creepy, eyeless monsters that like eating human babies.

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