I left the theatre tonight with my mind running around like a rat in a maze. My wife was weeping. We’d finally managed to get around to seeing Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”.
This film is a fairy tale in the finest old tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. A perfect yarn for a winter’s night where the cold, clear stars are gradually shrouded by a fog as thick as concrete that’s come skulking in off the sea. There are children in peril, a wicked step-parent, castles in the woods, ancient relics, hidden identities, monsters (both human and otherworldly), sadistic and bloody killings, heroes in the rough, desperate escapes and plenty of magic. In the course of the story, del Toro frightens us, plucks at our heartstrings and gives us hope.
Don’t look for a syrupy, Disneyfied romp with giggling fairy godmothers in pastel blue ballgowns who burst into song every ten minutes. The atmosphere of this movie is as dark and heavy as the air under a pile of blankets at two o’clock in the morning when you’re five and worried the boogeyman’s creeping out of the closet.
The story is set in fascist Spain of 1944. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother are taken to a small castle/big house in the forested mountains to live with her mother’s new husband (and the baby’s father), the cruel Capitan Vidal. At the edge of the yard lies the entrance to an ancient maze. As her mother’s pregnancy is wracked with problems and the Capitan brutalizes the locals in an attempt to weed-out rebels who some of the civilian household staff are conspiring with, Ofelia meets an insect that morphs into a pixie who leads her through the labyrinth to a portal watched by a lanky faun. The mysterious creature offers the girl a chance to escape from the harshness of her new home to a mystical underworld where she will reign as princess. But to do this Ofelia must undertake some frightening tasks using magic that has very serious consequences. Life under the Capitan gets worse, the pressure from her supernatural guide mounts and soon Ofelia must make some tough decisions about which path she will take.
There are many fascinating elements to this yarn, my favourite of which is the character of the faun (played by Doug Jones). He offers Ofelia hope, encouragement, comfort and a sense of greatness in a world that repeatedly marginalizes her. And yet this fae guide is rather menacing. He evades the girl’s question when she asks for his name (a nod to the belief in many cultures that to learn a thing’s name is to gain power over it). The household’s chief maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) notes that local folklore says fauns can’t be trusted. He’s gangly, twisted at odd angles, moves strangely, creaks like a tree in a wind storm and looms tall over the child. On one visit to the heart of the labyrinth, Ofelia finds him chomping indifferently on a hunk of unidentified meat. The megalith at the centre of the portal has a carving of a girl and a baby with a man standing possessively behind them which the faun points to and says “That’s me.” The faun orders the girl to descend into terrifying supernatural lairs haunted by horrible beings, to retrieve arcane artifacts that are sometimes unsettling and to use magic that is sometimes disturbing in appearance of its ingredients and requirements. This faun is about as far from the sidekick “Newton” on the old “Hercules” cartoon (from the same crew that inflicted “Rocket Robinhood” on us) as an anaconda is from a worm. And yet, that is in keeping with old style stories where magic wasn’t for the squeamish, heroes were in genuine danger, hope didn’t come for free and otherworldly companions were quite alien in their presentation and motives. And when it came to his motives, I admit, the faun had me fooled for a while.
As for the fact that the film is in Spanish, I don’t mind reading subtitles when they’re well done, and the text at the bottom of the screen in this case is impeccable - well-paced and most importantly, presented with proper grammar (there’s nothing more distracting to a viewer and more destructive to a foreign-language film than clumsy translation). I am left wondering (as is the case with many translated works) if some of the subtleties of the story have been washed out in translation. Regardless, I enjoyed what was presented immensely.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” was worth every cent of the full price of admission. Oh, this fairy tale isn’t for the faint of heart, kids. It’ll keep you up at night listening to every creak in the floorboards as the house settles. But sometimes that’s what a really good fairy tale does.