Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico/Spain/United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One of the most anticipated releases of the 2006 holiday season is the latest offering from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, whose previous credits include The Devil's Backbone, Blade 2, and Hellboy. With Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro opens a landscape where gothic fantasy elements are infused into the real-life horrors of the second World War. Set in Spain during the days immediately before and after D-Day, the movie provides a window into the mind of a young girl who seeks escape from a life that features a cruel stepfather and a mother whose difficult pregnancy is killing her. But is this girl's method of escape a portal into another reality or is it a conjuration of her fairy tale obsessed imagination?

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) isn't just having a bad day, she's having a bad life. Her country is war-torn with the fascist government battling the rebel maquis. Her father has died, a victim of the fighting. Her mother (Ariadna Gil), alone and unprotected, was forced to marry the vicious Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) and conceive his child. She is now nearing full term but the pregnancy is killing her. The potential of being left alone in the world with Vidal is enough to turn Ofelia's blood to ice. One day, while exploring the terrain around her new rural home, she discovers an ancient labyrinth made out of huge slabs of rock. Within live creatures of myth: fairies and fauns. Ofelia learns an amazing thing: she is the long-lost princess, the daughter of the King of the Underworld. To prove her worthiness of this title, she must complete three tasks set out for her by the faun Pan (Doug Jones). If they are done before the next full moon, she will be welcomed into her kingdom.

Perhaps the film's greatest asset is the way in which it interweaves Ofelia's quests with the tale of the Spanish resistance fighters. Both are equally compelling. When one story is being told, we are sufficiently involved that we aren't anxious to return to the other. This is an achievement. Many films with "split personalities" invest all their creative energy into one aspect of the story, causing the other one to founder and feel obligatory.

The set design and special effects, which go hand-in-hand, are impressive. The gloom of the labyrinth, with its crumbling stone structures, permeates the outside world. (Or should that be the other way around?) I used the word "gothic" earlier, and it's an apt descriptor of how the entire film feels. CGI effects are used in creating the fairies, the faun, and a few other creatures. By not overusing them and overwhelming us, del Toro prevents Pan's Labyrinth from seeming to have been assembled on a computer. His actors, especially young Ivan Baquero and Sergi Lopez, are excellent.

The term "fairy tale" can be used to describe Pan's Labyrinth, and references to The Wizard of Oz are not out of place. However, these should not go along with the expectation that this is a kid-friendly movie, because it is not. It contains scenes of graphic violence and images that will cause all but the most stalwart children to have nightmares. Some scenes, like one in which a character is forced to use a needle and thread to close a gaping wound, may cause even adults to flinch. However, the lack of family friendliness does not diminish what del Toro has achieved with this magical motion picture.

Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico/Spain/United States, 2006)

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ariadna Gil, Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Doug Jones, Alex Angulo
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Javier Navarrete
U.S. Distributor: Picturehouse
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Spanish
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1