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CLASSICS: Pan’s Labyrinth (2007)

October 31, 2013

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written by: Guillermo del Toro

produced by: Guillermo del toro, Alfonso Cuaron, B ertha Navarro, Frida Torresblanco & Alvaro Augustin

directed by: Guillermo del Toro

rating : R (for graphic violence and some language)

runtime: 119 min.

U.S. release date: December 26, 2006

DVD/Blu-ray release date: March 12, 2007

 

Once upon a time, fairy tales were told to children as they still are today. The stories, often immersed in fantasy, were passed down from generations to teach them some lesson about life. These fairy tales had a lot more faith in kids than we do now. The writers of these stories would give a darker and sinister tone, with grotesque imagery and real moral lessons. They knew that kids like to be scared, and they aren’t as fragile as we pretend they are now as we tell them “nicer” stories to make them feel safer. Writer & director Guillermo del Toro knows this and wrote a beautiful story that is frightening and harsh yet enchanting and mesmerizing that can be deemed….classic.

This film is reminiscent of the stories I was exposed to as a child or rather how they were originally introduced. Creepy stories like “Alice in Wonderland”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Wizard of Oz” have been watered-down by contemporary culture, Disney and adults in an effort to make them more kid-friendly. The bravery, stubbornness, and resilience of children have often been discounted in these edited “children” stories. Children often remain merely tolerated, with their thoughts and words discounted. del Toro’s uncompromising fairy tale is one for adults yet the film’s protagonist and imaginative host is a lonely 11 year-old girl. His original story is as dark and twisted, and thus just as magical, as those classic tales. He has made a scary and wondrous fantasy film seen through the eyes of a child, and it should enchant and frighten any adult who sees it.

 

 

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Shot entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, the film takes place in the forests of Spain circa 1944.  At the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco is in power, and his troops are destroying the last of the resistance. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) lost her father, a tailor, in the war and finds comfort in the world of fairy tale books she carries with her. She’s traveling with her downcast mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil, “Belle Epoque”), who remarried a sadistic solider, Captain Vidal (Sergi López, “Dirty Pretty Things”), to the fascist outpost (which sits right next to an ancient and mysterious stone labyrinth) he commands in the forest.  Carmen’s due to give birth to Vidal’s son soon and he has her move near him more so out of concern for his heir rather than his wife or her child. The egotistical Vidal is preoccupied as he tangles with a band of guerillas hiding in the mountains who are doing their best to overthrow his tyrannical rule.

Their first night in the moaning, creaky old house Ofelia clings to her mother in bed as her unborn brother restlessly kicks. Upon her mother’s request, Ofelia tells her brother a story in an effort to calm his nerves (and give her something to do instead of being spooked out). She rests her head on Carmen’s belly and begins her story as del Toro takes us to see a calm fetus basking in a glowing orange amniotic suspension. She tells him of a rare and beautiful night-blooming blue rose that at one time grew on a mountaintop (apparently similar to Meconopsis) surrounded by poisonous thorns that made its mysterious beauty-and properties of immortality-inaccessible. del Toro then pans the camera to the right and we see the rose and the mountain. Then it descends among twisted branches and where a mantis-like insect (that Ofelia had encountered in the forest on the way to the outpost) is shown in the foreground. The insect flutters away as the camera flies with it, passing the moon and landing on the window sill of the room Ofelia and her mother are resting.

This scene is just a sample of what del Toro does with this story throughout the entire movie. He creates a fluid composition that has both grace and complexity with a seamless that flows in and out of reality so well you feel like you are watching an eery magical symphony. The rest of the movie unfolds with ghastly sights and deflating heartbreaks as both the story of Ofelia’s labyrinth encounter and the resistance to Vidal’s troops runs so effortlessly and eloquently concurrent.

 

 

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For Ofelia, this new home is both a blessing and a curse. She is not fond of the man her mother wants her to call “father,” but she is immediately intrigued by the old stone labyrinth in the forest behind Vidal’s fort. Though the dutiful maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdú, “Y tu mamá también”) warns her not to go inside but obstinate Ofelia is lured there by a small fairy. It is that she meets the faun Pan (Doug Jones, “Hellboy”) as he tells her that his name, “only the wind and the trees can pronounce. It’s difficult to figure out Pan right away. He’s both creepy in appearance and intriguing in personality. Ofelia is not fazed by his presence at all. It’s almost as if she is already so absorbed in her fairy tale world that this contorted tree trunk man with the head of a goat doesn’t affect her in the least bit.  He tells her that she is a long-lost princess has finally come to return to her kingdom in another form. All she has to do is complete three magical tasks. He gives her a magic book whose blank pages will reveal her missions to her when she is alone.

None of Ofelia’s tasks are simple and all have real consequences when done incorrectly. She has to learn to follow directions completely and without question both in the magical realm and the real world. Naturally, when Ofelia sneaks off to battle a magic toad, she is going to get in trouble for disappearing, especially when she returns covered in mud and toad spit. Carmen’s pregnancy is making her sick, and so disobedience isn’t going to be tolerated. Meanwhile, the unreasonable Vidal is seeing that the fighting with the resistance is getting out of control. Something that his ego cannot handle or tolerate. His outbursts get more and more violent and he becomes even more insensitive to Carmen’s health. If she dies, that’s just collateral damage, and woe to Ofelia if that happens.

 

 

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del Toro gives his audience two different worlds in this fantastic film.  First, the reality of the brutal backdrop of the Civil War. He doesn’t shy away from the killing that keeps the wheels of battle turning, and there are many gruesome scenes that will make even the most iron-stomached gore junkies cringe. The second world is Ofelia’s fantasy kingdom. The adults never see what the young girl is going through, and part of the experience of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is questioning whether Ofelia is really witnessing magic or if these scenarios are just the escape hatch she goes through to get away from her cruel stepfather and the war-ravaged world. Either way, her fantasies bite back. Pan almost plays as a doppelganger for Vidal when he loses his temper over the girl’s mistakes. Survival on either side of the reality line also requires sacrifice, and Ofelia is going to learn some real lessons about what that means. She learns not only the repercussions of not following instructions, and the heavy prices there are to pay for disobedience but also to trust on her own instincts about right and wrong no matter what is asked of her. They are hard lessons to learn and each time her character is fatally tested as she learns who she really is.

Regardless of which explanation you choose to believe, the spell of this movie is irresistible. Guillermo del Toro has written a multi-layered tale that will scare you, delight you, and keep you precariously poised on the edge of your seat. You’ll cringe, but you won’t want to look away lest you miss a frame of his gorgeously crafted alternate dimension. For the two hours the film runs, the director reminds adults of what it’s like to believe so thoroughly in your own imagination that anything is possible, while also reminding us that real heroism is fraught with human error and bought at a real price. Like the titular labyrinth, any adventure has a lot of twists and turns on its way to fulfillment. Sometimes the turns may be wrong and in others they are triumphantly right, but there’s always something worth discovering in that journey just around the corner.

 

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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