Not many movies dealing with war and death can be called magical, but “Pan’s Labyrinth,” directed by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, fits the bill.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is the story of a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who moves with her pregnant mother to a house in northern Spain to live her new stepfather, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez). The movie takes place in 1944, and Vidal is a commander in the ruling fascist army. He is one twisted human being and his violent escapades are probably the biggest reason for the movie’s R rating.
With life as grim and uncertain is it is, Ofelia takes refuge in her books of fairy tales. They inspire her to visit a fantasy world of her own making that serves as an escape but is also a reflection of the scary and uncertain times in which she lives. While in this imaginary world, she meets a faun named Pan who offers her safety if she can complete several dangerous tasks. Pan has a somewhat frightening appearance at first, although he serves a friend to her. He wants to help Ofelia, but he can get angry when she doesn’t follow his directions exactly.
In one of the tasks, she must venture into the lair of the Pale Man, who is probably one of the scariest creatures to appear in movie in recent memory. He is a tall, demonic thing with semi-translucent skin whose favorite meal is little children. The walls of his dining room are decorated with a mural of him devouring his unfortunate victims. Ofelia is instructed not to eat any food from his lavish table, but she eats a couple of grapes in a moment of weakness. This causes the Pale Man to awaken from his slumber and lumber down the hall after Ofelia. He doesn’t have eye sockets on his face and when he wakes, he places his eyeballs into holes on his palms and holds them up to see where he is going. Believe me, this isn’t a scene you will soon forget.
The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards last month, which include best foreign language film, best original screenplay, best art direction, best cinematography, best makeup and best music. Every single one of these elements contributes to the overall success of the movie, with del Toro using them to draw the viewer into the strange world he has conceived for Ofelia, as well as the harsh reality that surrounds her. The makeup effects are stunning, with characters not quite like anything we’ve seen before, especially on American screens. Del Toro has called “Pan” a “fairy tale for grownups,” which it certainly is. Some adults may not respond to the fantasy elements, and the disturbing imagery and somewhat gruesome violence will certainly be too intense for young children. I think, though, that imaginative parents may be able to enjoy the movie with their older children. Perhaps 12 or 13 might be a good age to draw the line, depending on the sensibilities of the child. I guess this is probably happening across the country, since the movie has made a surprising $26.6 million to date at the domestic box office, remaining in the top 10 for three weeks.
Of course, without good acting, we probably wouldn’t care about everything else, but this is far from a problem. Baquero is incredible in the lead role, and it is impossible not to care deeply about what happens to her. Lopez makes a terrific villain, who is all more terrifying because of the historic reality he represents.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a wonderful artistic achievement and has “cult film” written all over it due to it sheer weirdness. It will likely survive for years on DVD and in midnight screenings.
Del Toro was once rumored to be in talks for directing a “Harry Potter,” and he reportedly turned down the chance to helm the fifth in the series, which will be released in June. The greatness of “Pan” makes me hope that he will reconsider in the future.
“Pan’s Labyrinth” is rated R. No one under 17 admitted without accompanying parent or adult guardian.