The world is filled with monsters.
We don't need storytellers to conjure up our demons for us; they're all around us, more hideous and vile than anything we could ever dream up in our poor imaginations. Monsters have always been with us; they always will be with us. It is when we recognize that evil exists--that evil has existed for all time, everywhere, and that that evil is us, within us all--that we truly lose our innocence. It is of these things that Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro reminds us in "Pan's Labyrinth," a dark, grim, and decidedly adult fairy tale. It was one of the best movies of 2006.
We see del Toro following a traditional path of magical realism (or "marvelous reality") here, where elements of magic emerge from an otherwise naturalistic setting to heighten the truth. In this movie, the story revolves around the fantasies of a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), living under the fascist regime of dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1944, a few years after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War.
Ofelia is a combination of Cinderella and Lewis Carroll's Alice, only she is a real little girl in a very real place. Like Cinderella, she must learn to live with a new and uncaring parent, not an evil stepmother this time but an evil step dad. Her real father has died, and her mother has recently remarried to a Captain in the Spanish army, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a coldhearted brute of a man whose business it is to round up and execute rebels in the Spanish hills. He is a merciless military man through and through, who never questions orders and never doubts his loyalty to the Franco government, killing with the ruthless efficiency of a well-oiled and quite malevolent machine. His marriage is more a convenience to produce a son than a commitment to love or romance, either of which he feels would expose him as weak.
Ofelia enters with trepidation into this cold, unfeeling realm, a small warlike encampment situated in an abandoned farm in the Spanish mountains, an outpost her new father commands, and immediately senses the hostility and the need to break free. She finds her escape the only way she can--through her vivid child's inventiveness.
A winged mantis and an old, crumbling, rock labyrinth near the farmhouse are her first steps into a foreboding fantasy world she creates to parallel the real and threatening world that surrounds her. In a way, then, Ofelia's fairy-tale world symbolizes the debased world she sees around her, which in this case also represents the brutal world of Franco's Spain in the 1940s, filled as it was with bloodshed and corruption.
In her own dream world, Ofelia meets fairies and fauns, with Pan (Doug Jones) setting her a series of tasks, quests, to carry out, freakish adventures involving giant toads and nearly eyeless ogres. If she can just carry out these assignments obediently, unflinchingly, the faun promises her rewards beyond her wildest dreams. But the film is not entirely doom, gloom, or adventure, for like all good fairy tales, it carries with it much meaning. Mostly, this meaning has to do with choices--the choices we make to think for ourselves or to blindly follow orders, to be good, decent human beings or to become...monsters, like the one we see in her stepfather. Through Ofelia's experiences, we learn more about what it means to be human and how we might all attain eternal happiness. Through the darkness and despair, del Toro shines a bright light of comfort and warmth, yet a light that never slips into sentimentality, not even for a minute.
It is hard to fault this film on any level. Twelve-year-old Ivana Baquero dominates every scene more than anyone else in the story, more so than one could ask of any seasoned, veteran actress let alone one of her age. And her fellow actors are equally compelling, especially Sergi Lopez as the stonyhearted stepfather. His character would as much see Ofelia dead as look at her, yet we also see in the character the hatred he must feel toward himself, and we see his subtle desire for suicide. It is a remarkable performance. Nor can we overlook Doug Jones's seemingly benign yet vaguely sinister Pan or Maribel Verdu's sensitive portrayal of the housekeeper, Mercedes. It is as good an ensemble cast as you are likely to find in any motion picture of any year.
Still, this is above all del Toro's movie. It is his vision and imagination that carry the day, an ingenuity that served him well in the past in such outright horror flicks as "Blade II," "Hellboy," and the much underappreciated "Mimic." However, "Pan's Labyrinth" more closely resembles his 2001 film "The Devil's Backbone," which carried the tagline "The living are always more dangerous than the dead." Very true, and "Pan" is a continuation of that theme, a companion piece, so it is not a coincidence that it is also set in the milieu of Franco's Spain.
Add to the superb script, the superb acting, and the superb directing some superb visual effects, superb cinematography, superb set design, and a superbly haunting musical score by Javier Navarrete, and you get a movie that is not easy to forget. It is a multifaceted film of worlds within worlds that works at all levels and touches one in every direction. We feel pity, terror, disgust, wonder, astonishment, shock, and, ultimately, hope. It does everything we could ask of a great motion picture.
The film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio fills out a 16x9 widescreen television nicely in a high-bit-rate, anamorphic transfer. On the plus side, the black levels are very deep, and the picture quality looks pretty much as I remember it from the theater. However, on the minus side, I didn't think the theatrical presentation was all that good, the definition seeming a tad soft, the colors a bit oversaturated, and the overall appearance too glossy. Of course, I'm sure this was del Toro's intention, to present better his idea of a fantasy world within a real world. So, although the colors may not be entirely normal or natural, neither is the film's story entirely normal or natural.
Definition is still good, without being in the highest echelon of sharpness. Facial tones are often too dark to seem real. Detailing is OK, if not in the HD range. Nevertheless, I would love to see this film in high definition, and I hope that if and when New Line decide to take the plunge, they consider "Pan's Labyrinth" and "LOTR" among their first HD releases.
"Pan's Labyrinth" is largely a quiet film, the music a soft lullaby, but that doesn't mean there aren't moments of intense drama and horrific effects, of which the sound is very much a part. There is a an effective sense of surround, a strong dynamic impact, a clean midrange, and a sometimes thundering bass. More important, though, there are subtle nuances that encircle the listener, especially evident during the forest and labyrinth scenes. It's quite a lovely yet powerful soundtrack, actually.
In this Two-Disc Platinum Series, the first disc contains primarily the feature presentation. In addition, there is a very brief prologue by director del Toro and an uncommonly analytical, informative, no-nonsense audio commentary by the director. If you're serious about the film, you might want to get serious about the commentary. There is a also a section on the film's marketing campaign that includes poster art, trailers, and TV spots, followed by twenty-two scene selections (but no chapter insert), and a collection of Sneak Peeks at other New Line products. Spanish is the only spoken language, with English and Spanish subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two contains, first, a set of four brief featurettes that the DVD producer might well have combined into a single documentary. They are "The Power of Myth," fourteen minutes, in which the director discusses the story idea; "Pan and the Fairies," thirty minutes, in which the director discusses the movie's creatures and their design; "The Color and The Shape," four minutes, in which the director discusses his choice of color palette; and "The Lullaby," two segments on the film's music.
Next, there is a "Charlie Rose Show" episode in which the host converses with filmmakers del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Then there's a "Director's Notebook" containing del Toro's preliminary notes and sketches for the movie, a multi-angle storyboard and VFX plate comparison, and various galleries of creature design, production design, and the like. Things conclude with some DVD Comics, animated sequences from the film, DVD-ROM links, and a handsomely embossed slipcover.
Be aware that despite the seeming fairy-tale motif of "Pan's Labyrinth," it is quite a harsh film, and its violence, while always at the service of the story, is most certainly too intense for youngsters. It carries an R rating for the ferocity of its bloodshed, as well it should. Please, do not be mislead into thinking the movie is a children's fantasy. It is not.
The organization to which I belong, the Online Film Critics Society, voted "Pan's Labyrinth" the best Foreign Language Film of the year. What's more, the Wife-O-Meter, who is a far more demanding critic than anyone in the OFCS, gave the film a 9.998/10 vote. Who am I to argue?