For many years I knew of the visual style of Guillermo del Toro, but the only film I’d seen of his was the tepid “Mimic.” While that movie stank like beetle dung, there were some memorable scenes in the film and it piqued an interest in the Mexican director. Alas, I’m not a big fan of comic book movies which kind of took me out of the loop for “Blade 2” and “Hellboy,” but one fine summer day I stumbled across del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone.” What a truly great film! Del Toro had somehow managed to blend gothic style horror with a ghost story with a story about shady pasts all set in the backdrop of the Spanish civil war. While that all sounds convoluted and puzzling, it couldn’t be a more perfect film. Then, six years later, we get “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Again del Toro sets his film in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war. We meet young Ofelia who is headed to the Spanish countryside with her sick and pregnant mother to live with her new father, the fascist Captain Vidal. We immediately sense that Ofelia is lost in a fantasy world as she stares out the window seeing the world her way all the while clutching an armful of fairy tale books. Soon fantasy crosses reality as Ofelia comes across an intriguing little fairy/bug in the forest near her new home.
Ofelia then meets “The Faun,” a mystical goat like creature (Or Pan-like, as it were) who tells her she’s the reincarnation of the King of the Underworld’s daughter, Moanna. Yet in order to regain entry to the Underworld, Ofelia must undergo three difficult tests. The tests get increasingly scarier but we soon realize the real terror is in the human world, specifically at the hands of the sadistic Captain Vidal.
As Vidal, Sergi Lopez has created one of the all time great screen villains. The guy is simply terrifying. Part Nazi and part… I don’t know… serial killer? His reign is brutal. Ivana Baquero is also great as young Ofelia but the real star here is del Toro. Forgive me if I gush, but the way he’s able to seamlessly slip between fantasy and reality worlds is masterful. There’s also tons of what del Toro has described as “visual rhyming,” scenes that occur several times in slightly different ways, yet all are absolutely vital to the story. Plus, the fantasy elements in this film are great. Del Toro clearly has a horror fetish so his fantasy world is pretty twisted, but it’s refreshing to see a fantasy film that isn’t dumbed down in order to get a PG-13.
Again del Toro has taken several cinematic elements that don’t belong together, mashed them together and created a nearly flawless film. What’s even more impressive here is the way del Toro has mixed in a strong anti-fascist message that needs to be heard more often in our modern day world. Yet through all the finer, intricate points of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the film is also incredibly fun. The action scenes are exciting, the fantasy scenes are creative and the war scenes are brutal. This is a great film that’s going to have some difficulty reaching an audience here in America. It’s all in Spanish and there’s no big name actors. But “Pan’s Labyrinth” is one of those underdog films that needs to be seen and I encourage anyone who likes movies of any kind to check it out.