Movie Review 2007 #103: Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth, or more correctly, Laberinto del fauno, is Guillermo Del Toro’s dark fantasy adult fairy tale, in Spanish with English subtitles.

Set during the Spanish Civil War in 1944, Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl moving to the country with her pregnant mother to meet her very wicked stepfather, an officer in the army trying to deal with the rebels plaguing the backcountry of Spain. Ofelia’s imagination, or perhaps her heritage, however, allows her to unlock a secret world of magical creatures, and a possible escape from the grim reality of her surroundings into a wondrous destiny.
PL is a dark fantasy fairy tale that counterpoints the mundane events in the movie with the fantastic events and doings of its heroine beautifully. The question of whether Ofelia is really seeing, experiencing and interacting with this fantasy world is kept purposefully vague. It is clear that, real or imagined, that while it is an escape from the brutal reality around her, it is not an escape into a sweetness and light world, as she must undertake dangerous tasks at the behest of the mysterious Faun.
And brutal is the right word. This is an adult fairy tale even more so than, say, Stardust, since it is extremely dark. Casual murder, torture, and sadism are the rule of the day for Capitan Vidal, her stepfather, and the movie pulls no punches in showing the dark side of merciless power. It is no wonder to the viewers that, even when facing things like the Pale Man, Ofelia’s heart lies in the fantasy side of things rather than the dark fact of her mundane existence.
The commentary and special features are interesting insofar as it really shows that Del Toro understands fairy tales and how to use them to present his story in their context. He also does reveal in the commentary the answer to the question of how real is what Ofelia experiences with with the fantasy side of her existence, and I strongly recommend that you watch the movie without the commentary, first, so as not to prejudice your own opinions and views of the movie.
Aside from the subject matter, the acting is well done, and the parallel stories weave very well together. We buy into both sides of the film as presented and the characters, while drawn simply and are not very complex, come off very strongly as a result of their simplicity. One might say they border on the iconic. The cinematography and visuals are striking and arresting. Del Toro is an artist who likes to draw out his characters and scenes in advance, and the attention to detail is evident, especially in the fantasy half of the film. However, the “real” story is not skimped upon, either.
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of my favorite movies from 2006 and is very properly a part of my DVD collection. If you have any interest in fairy tales, especially dark adult-oriented ones, I strongly urge you to see Pan’s Labyrinth.