Pan’s Labyrinth, the new film from the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, lives up to all its hype and then some. This is dark, dark fantasy served straight up and without even a slight chaser of whimsy. And while its storyline involves fairies, a faun and a spectral maze hidden in the deep woods, it is absolutely not a movie for young children. In fact, the film trafficks in so many raw, adult emotions that I can imagine even older children getting in over their heads as well. But if you want to know what it must have felt like to see Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast unheralded in a movie theater, and if you can handle a story in which wonder and tragedy bleed into each other, then you ought to see this in a good theater while you still have the chance.
What comes next is going to be loaded with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth yet, stop reading and come back when you’re ready.
After making his debut in 1993 with Cronos, a stylish and original take on vampirism, Del Toro seemed on his way to becoming a mildly interesting hack with jobwork like Mimic and Blade 2. He adroitly righted himself in 2001 with The Devil’s Backbone, a tragic ghost story set in the waning months of the Spanish Civil War.
Pan’s Labyrinth is something of a companion piece to the earlier film. It is 1944: The Fascists have won the war and are conducting mop-up operations against the Republicans, who have taken to the mountains to conduct hit-and-run attacks against Franco’s forces. Most of the story is told from the point of view of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a bookish eleven-year-old whose mother has married Vidal (Sergei Lopez), a Fascist officer ordered to wipe out resistance fighters hiding out in a stretch of forest.
The garrison is headquartered in an old mill; off in the woods is a stone maze that exerts a powerful hold on Ofelia’s already fanciful imagination. There she finds a faun (Doug Jones) who informs her that she is actually a long-lost princess of the underworld who was raised among humans without knowledge of her heritage. To demonstrate that her spirit is still pure, Ofelia must perform three tasks involving some of the most memorable monsters ever seen on film. There is nothing arbitrary about the tasks, either: each one brings Ofelia further along the path to mature responsiblity, thereby adding to the sense of loss in the film’s uncompromisingly harsh conclusion.
Del Toro has already secured his place as a master of breathtaking and grotesque imagery, and with Pan’s Labyrinth he and his design team manage to top themselves. But the most impressive thing about this film is the discipline and ingenuity of del Toro’s storytelling. The film is always working on several levels at once. The pagan spirits inhabiting the old woods, holding out against the prosaic adult world, echo the partisans holding out against the cruelties of Franco. Ofelia’s secret journeys to the underworld are paralleled by Carmen (Ariadna Gil), the head housekeeper, who smuggles supplies to the resistance fighters; Ofelia’s journey to her “true” imaginary life parallels the difficult course of her mother’s pregnancy, made all the more frightening by the knowledge that Vidal is more interesting in seeing a son born than in ensuring that his sickly wife survives the delivery. And for all the terror inspired by the film’s monsters — particularly a child-eating ogre with eyes in the palms of its hands — the real-life monstrousness going on around Ofelia is more terrifying still. Even the three tasks given to Ofelia get a sinister echo in the cruel offer of freedom Vidal makes to a prisoner he is about to torture.
In a way, Pan’s Labyrinth plays as a distant cousin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Both films advance the power of imagination as the individual’s last line of defense against (or shelter from) totalitarianism. But where Brazil made the hero’s daily life as grotesque as his imaginary one, Pan’s Labyrinth uses carefully detailed realism to heighten the fantasy and draw out the parallels to everyday reality.
Del Toro’s next film will be a Hellboy sequel, not something I’m lathered up to see. Why should a man waste his time with grenadine concoctions when he has demonstrated such mastery at bottling strange wine? But del Toro can make as much fanboy dreck as he likes, so long as every few years he delivers a jolt of the real stuff.