Thursday 12 April 2007

Thursday 12 April 2007
WRITER & DIRECTOR: Guillermo Del Toro
CAST: Ivana Baquiero (Ofelia), Sergi Lopez (Captain Vidal), Doug Jones (The Faun/The Pale Man), Ariadna Gil (Carmen), Maribel Verdu (Mercedes), Alex Angulo (Doctor Ferreiro), Roger Casamajor (Pedro) & Cesar Vea (Serrano)

Spain, 1944. A young girl, who's obsessed with fairy tales, travels with her pregnant mother to her fascist stepfather's country home, where she encounters real magic...

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has a career many filmmakers are envious of. He's an auteur who has found international success with Spanish-language films (Cronos, The Devil's Backbone), but also has a notable Hollywood career (Mimic, Blade II, Hellboy). He may not be a household name yet, but that's beginning to change...

Pan's Labyrinth (or El labertino del fauno) is another of Del Toro's signature fantasies, again concerning a child with parental problems who encounters the supernatural, set to a civil war backdrop. It's a concept with obvious similarities to Del Toro's own The Devil's Backbone (both films even open with an injured child.)

Ivana Baquiero plays Ofelia, a sweet girl living in post-civil war Spain. Ofelia's mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is heavily pregnant, so the pair are staying with Ofelia's stepfather, sinister fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). It's not long before Ofelia encounters a stick insect/fairy that leads her to a crumbling underground labyrinth. There she meets a faun (Doug Jones) who tells her she is the reincarnation of a lost princess who can return to her kingdom if she completes three tasks...

The great skill of Pan's Labyrinth is how Del Toro balances the brutal realities of war and the magical world Ofelia "escapes" to. It may surprise some, but the film is more interested in Spain than its magical labyrinth. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) is the film's real face of horror, not the "Pale Man" (an albino with eyes in the palms of his hands).

The balance between the two worlds is achieved deftly, although some people could be disappointed with the relative sparcity of the supernatural. However, Ofelia's plight in rural Spain is actually more involving than her occassional trips to the underworld.

Pan's Labyrinth is a fairy tale at heart; albeit a very dark and twisted one. Mind you, children's literature has always been freaky, with absent parents, talking animals, child-eating witches, nasty stepsisters, etc. The film is a mix of Miyazaki's Spirited Away and a darker version of C.S Lewis' Narnia saga. The inclusion of an unborn child and evil step-parent also has parallels to countless tales from the Brothers Grimm.

The cast are brilliant, particularly Ivana Baquiero in the lead role, who brings a wonderful naturalness to Ofelia. Sergi Lopez gives a fantastic performance as Captain Vidal, commanding every scene he's in. Finally, Doug Jones (who worked with Del Toro on Hellboy) is great as the Faun and the Pale Man, using his slender frame and expressive mannerisms to wondrous effect. He should also be applauded for his faultless Spanish, which he learned phonetically.

While not quite the masterpiece some are hailing it, Pan's Labyrinth is certainly very entertaining and intellligent work. It's a well-accomplished film, impeccably acted and containing superb design, make-up and effects. Against expectations, I found the Spanish drama between Ofelia, Vidal, Carmen and kindly housemaid Mercedes more interesting than the fantasy moments (many of which are spoiled by the trailer).

Overall, Pan's Labyrinth is deserving of your time, but don't raise your expectations too high. Del Toro entertains and impresses with his visual flair, but he doesn't rewrite the fantasy movie genre (he even steals the chalk-door idea from Beetlejuice). But he does offers a beguiling mix of genres (war film, coming-of-age drama, fantasy adventure and horror) that merge into a potent whole.


PICTURE: The 1.85:1 widescreen image is generally crisp and sumptuous, although some of the blacks seem to have too much blue tinge.

SOUND: The Spanish language DD5.1 soundmix is suitably atmospheric, but lacks real bite. The dialogue and mid-range is fine, but the directional effects are sometimes absent.

This particular DVD of Pan's Labyrinth was part of the Guillermo Del Toro box-set that also contains Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, so it included no extra features. However it did come in a very nice fold-out sleeve with suitably slick designs and a nice information booklet.

* Spanish language, English subtitles