“… manages to deliver a whimsical storybook world, while not letting us forget about the horrors that envelop the real one.”
Pan’s Labyrinth is probably the most ‘Guillermo del Toro’ movie out of all of Guillermo del Toro’s movies, and here’s why: Pan’s Labyrinth takes everything that del Toro is known for and combines it into a wonderful story. A lot of these commonalities I addressed in my review of The Devil’s Backbone, but know that Pan’s Labyrinth improves upon almost every single one. Now with these improvements there also comes a few steps backwards, but we’ll get into that later. For now let’s start with a plot synopsis. Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in 1944, just after the Spanish Civil War. The film follows Ofelia, a young girl who is being taken to the country on her pregnant mother’s request to live with The Captain, her new father. When she arrives she discovers an old labyrinth on the property, and in the middle she meets the Faun. The Faun tells Ofelia that she is a magical princess who has to complete three tasks to prove that she is of royal blood, and only then will she be returned to her rightful father the King.
So what makes Pan’s Labyrinth the quintessential Guillermo del Toro film? Well in my opinion, in encapsulates everything that I attribute to him as a director. Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie that feels like a fairy tale. This is obviously intentional due to the fact that the main character loves to read fairy tales, but the point stands nonetheless. But even going beyond the fact that it feels like a fairy tale, del Toro managed to take the story into some very real, very dark places. Sure you can say that the story is about a girl doing whimsical things for a whimsical entity who lives in a labyrinth, but you can’t ignore that the film is also about death and abuse and some really disgusting characters that resemble ones that exist in the real world (I’m looking at you lanky, malnourished-but-also-oddly-fat, baby-eating people of the world). Now these two sides to this story (real and fake) create this wonderful world where this character is able to forget about life and indulge in the whimsical side of things, but it also creates some pacing issues. These two stories are running concurrently, but sometimes one gets ahead of the other and it messes with your perception of how long the film has been going. For instance, by the time Ofelia had finished two tasks (technically 2/3 of the story), I was surprised to see that the movie was only about halfway over. That’s because I didn’t account for the stories having to compensate when one takes a while to get to the point (for lack of a better term). This isn’t necessarily a knock against the film, but it is something that I noticed. Luckily any and all pacing issues were quickly resolved by the film taking me back into this immersive world.
To talk more about the “fairy tale” feel of the film, let’s move onto the effects. Another reason Pan’s Labyrinth is the Guillermo del Toro movie, is because of the film’s look and feel. The only movie of del Toro’s (again, in my opinion) that could trump Pan’s Labyrinth in this category would be Hellboy. But I haven’t reviewed that one yet, so for now Pan’s Labyrinth is the winner. There’s a lot to talk about here so let’s break it down into categories. First off, let’s talk about the sets in Pan’s Labyrinth. Now for the most part, I would call the setting of Pan’s Labyrinth to be rather basic. The film takes place on a ranch (maybe?) in the 40’s, so there isn’t much to look at. Where this movie really shines is when we get into the mystical settings. There are only a handful to reference, but all of them are amazing and almost deserve reviews of their own. You have the labyrinth, the room under the labyrinth, the Pale Man lair, and even the kingdom which we get to see glimpses of. These locations are so different, but they all tell a story. The stories are different for each location, but they are there. Be it the statue in the labyrinth room, the paintings in the Pale Man lair, or just the general appearance of the kingdom, you learn so much just by seeing. In my opinion this makes for wonderful set design, and really elevates the feel of this film. And the sets aren’t even the best part, especially when we have yet to talk about the creature designs. Now the creature designs in Pan’s Labyrinth is kind of a double-edged sword because they are very beautiful and ambitious, but in my opinion they were ahead of their time (not in a good way). Let’s start by talking about the good. The practical effects in the film (much like a lot of the set design) is gorgeous. Seeing The Faun or the Pale Man walk around and look so real but at the same time so fake is amazing. The care that went into these designs and executions (including the performances; I didn’t forget about you, Doug) are astounding. And even the designs for the smaller creatures such as the fairies or the toad were remarkably done. This however brings me to my next point: The CGI in Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t hold up. I thought it may just be a hiccup at the beginning of the film, but it turns out that all of the CGI (or at least the majority of it) looks like shit; and that makes me sad. Because you now have a film that is so beautiful and ambitious, and so much work went into it, but a lot of it is wasted. Instead of me looking at the fairies and thinking “Wow, those are great. The design in incredible”, I found myself thinking something more in line with “Ew. How long ago did this movie come out?”. Now it is true that Pan’s Labyrinth is an eleven-year-old film so some of this is forgivable, but my issue is that forgiving these sins doesn’t make them go away. I can say that Guillermo del Toro and co. did as good a job as they could have at the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that when I watch this movie I will be constantly thinking about how all of the effects look like shit. And this is exactly what I meant when I said that Pan’s Labyrinth was ahead of its time: The ideas are all there, but the execution of most of the creatures leaves a lot to be desired.
Really the last thing there is to discuss is the glue that holds any film together: the performances. You have two sides to this story: reality and fantasy. I’m not going to debate whether or not the things that happen in this movie are real, I just need you to know that each side has good and bad guys. On the side of reality you have the “good guy”, which is largely fulfilled by Mercedes; a servant to The Captain. You can argue that this role is filled by Ofelia’s mother as well, but for the sake of this piece let’s just say that I’m right. Mercedes is played by Maribel Verdú, and she does a wonderful job doing it. Mercedes is a complicated character, and Verdú does an amazing job showcasing that. Not only does she care for Ofelia and suffer abuse from The Captain, but there may or may not be some ulterior motives that drive her character as well. On the side of the “bad guys” you have The Captain. The Captain, played by Sergi López, is probably the worst character in this film. By worst I mean he’s a dick, not worst as in he is poorly written or anything; as a matter of fact it’s just the opposite. The entire film you are terrified of The Captain, and that is all thanks to López’s performance. It’s had to pinpoint a certain moment that encapsulates this performance, but a certain interrogation scene would have to be up there. I honestly think that this scene, forgetting everything else in the movie, stands on its own as a brilliant achievement in filmmaking. Representing the side of the living, things are a little more ambiguous. You have the bad guy played by Doug Jones as the Pale Man, but then you also have the Faun, whose motives are less clear. Either way Doug Jones does an amazing job in both roles, and he is one of the main reason’s for this film’s success in the first place. The way that Jones plays both the Faun and the Pale Man is great because he makes them so different. The way he is able to contort his body and move in ways that are so removed from the way that humans move is a talent to behold. I was going to make a point that the character between these two worlds is Ofelia, and that point still stands but it is a little less poetic considering I can’t think of an actual “good guy” to represent the side of fantasy. Anyway, I’m sick of listening to my own thoughts so let’s just cut to the chase: Ivana Baquero does an amazing job playing Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth. Her ability, even at such a young age, to convey such emotion and bring a character who is in the middle of so much shit to life in a relatable way is amazing to me. Throughout the film I never once questioned the story unfolding in front of my eyes and that’s because, like a beautiful puzzle, all of these performance came together along with (most of) the effects, and the writing to deliver one of the most unique films I have ever seen.
Overall Pan’s Labyrinth is a magical experience from start to finish. It manages to deliver a whimsical storybook world, while not letting us forget about the horrors that envelop the real one. The CGI in the film hasn’t aged well at all, but the character designs are still there and they are still wonderful. Luckily a lot of the creature effects (including the set designs) were done practically, so the bulk of the film still looks amazing. And the cherry on top of this already delicious sundae are the amazing performances that bring this beautifully tragic story to life.
I give Pan’s Labyrinth an A