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Thursday February 1, 2007 10:27 pm

Pan’s Labyrinth Review: A Violent but Visual Delight

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth centers on an imaginitive young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who is moved with her mother and unborn brother to a military outpost in 1940s postwar Spain.  Her new stepfather, the violent and merciless Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is trying to round up the last of an insurgency living in the surrounding forest.  When Ofelia stumbles upon a fantastical underworld in which she will be made princess, she must prove her worth to a host of mystical creatures while protecting herself and her loved ones from the belligerent captain.  While the film isn’t for children or anyone with an intolerance for graphic violence, it is by far the most visually stunning spectacle of 2006 and leaves one with the faint but distinct desire to believe in the supernatural.

Pan’s Labyrinth is written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.  Rated R.

Trying to once again capture the childhood feeling I got from watching films like Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, and Willow has been difficult, to say the least.  Not that I’ve been on some ridiculous mission to relive my childhood through cinema – if only I had the time – but in the back of my head has been a desire, a sort of clandestine longing that began when I grew too old for fantasy.  It may be that once you know better, that feeling is lost forever, along with countless other childhood delusions (i.e. the opposite sex is gross, Elmo is God, etc.).  Luckily, if those youthful fantasies have a chance of return, they will be manifested in a film like Pan’s Labyrinth.  With its focus on simplistic story-telling and grandiose effect, Pan’s Labyrinth stays just short of epic, resting comfortably in the realm of cult status.  This is the fairy tale for the dormant kid inside us all.

The film focuses exclusively on two separate stories: one set in the dark underworld, the other on the surface with the military insurgency.  Both revolve around little Ofelia coping with various real and surreal problems.  Of course, these conflicting worlds become bridged by Ofelia as we stay at her side nearly throughout.  Where del Toro’s skill really shines through as a writer/director is in the way he steers the story, always focusing on one, then the other, but allowing both stories to periodically affect one another.  Neither story would have felt complete, or even interesting, without this balance.  And allowing the real world to have just as much at stake is truly what appeals to both sides – the child and the grown-up inside.  These flawless interweavings are coupled with beautiful cinematography, unparalleled special effect and make-up, and wonderful performances all around – especially from Lopez, who continually flips from loathed enemy to best friend in an instant, with one quick smirk.

Since I mentioned how appealing this film would be to the child inside, let me make one thing perfectly clear: this film is not for children.  I cannot stress this enough.  Make no mistake, the film does have much that would appeal to a younger crowd – magic, mystery, mythical creatures and otherworldly locales – but the rest of it has some pretty graphic violence and, though some characters may look a bit scary, nothing will frighten a child like Captain Vidal.  If you really want him/her to experience cinematic fantasy, plop your rug-rat down in front of one of the aforementioned films and avoid serious psychological damage.

The film is subtitled in Spanish, but don’t let that ruin your chance to see a beautiful movie.  I can’t tell you how angry I get when someone rolls their eyes and refuses to see subtitled films.  If you think it’s difficult, you need some serious help.  If anything, subtitles help one better understand the subject matter and dialogue, and allow one to use the brain for more than hand-popcorn-mouth coordination.  It’s kinda like reading a book, you know?

Pan’s Labyrinth is one of those films that will stay with you for longer than a few weeks.  My guess?  In 20 years I’ll be looking through my DVD collection (the modern day 8-track), and sitting next to those earlier mentioned films, films that helped define my childhood, will be Pan’s Labyrinth in all of its sick, violent, yet wondrous glory.

*This film has been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography at this year’s Academy Awards, February 25th on ABC.




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