Saturday, November 12, 2011

Pan's Labyrinth: Another Good Movie, Not As Great As I'd Hoped

The Good: Excellent effects, Interesting story, Good acting
The Bad: Characters are all "types," Simple concept yields simple results, Pacing
The Basics: In a visually stunning film, a girl escapes from the horrors of a repressive political regime through her imaginary muse who she hopes can save her.

Given my general disappointment in the Academy Awards, I was looking forward to watching Pan's Labyrinth. Based on everything I had read or heard about it, I was prepared to say that it had been robbed for Best Picture and I was ready to be blown away. I watched Pan's Labyrinth on DVD in its two-disc treatment on my HD-TV (reviewed here!). I was ready to be impressed.

I was not.

Falling in under my expectations, Pan's Labyrinth is a beautiful looking film that succeeds in a lot of ways: writer/director Guillermo Del Toro ought to be proud. Indeed, it might even be the best film of last year. But that only strengthens my argument that the award would mean more if it were only given out when a truly extraordinary film was released, as opposed to every year.

During the rise of Franco's Spain in 1944, a young girl named Ofelia is brought to live with her mother and her new beau, Capitan Vidal at an installation in a remote area. Her mother falls quite ill during her pregnancy and the Capitan shows no affection for her or desire for a stepdaughter. Ofelia soon realizes that she is in an untenable situation; if Vidal's baby is born, she will be cast aside and if anything happens to her mother, she will be cast aside. It is under that cloud that Ofelia begins to imagine a better world for herself.

Having moved to the compound, Ofelia discovers an ancient maze nearby and in the center lives a faun. The faun charges her with a series of mystical quests to save her mother's life and Ofelia attempts to meet the demands of the magical creature. While Ofelia descends into her fantasy realm, her mother falls more ill and the rebellion against Vidal's forces grow, sending the captain into an insane rage which menaces all around him.

Pan's Labyrinth is a visual marvel. Ofelia's creative mind is perfectly expressed by Guillermo Del Toro and the special effects department backing him up. The film looks good. And despite the fact that the film is in Spanish with subtitles (there is no dubbing option on the DVD), the film is quiet enough that most of the effects may be appreciated by the American viewer as there are not constant subtitles running over the effects. Pan's Labyrinth looks great and the fantastic creatures are wonderful, most notably the Pale Man, a nightmarish creature with eyes on the palms of its hands. This is a freaky looking film.

I'll admit, I was psyched about the movie because of its look. Even hearing that it was essentially a fairy tale for adults, I was excited. After all, I own The City Of Lost Children (reviewed here!) on DVD and that's an adult fairy tale. It's also what killed Pan's Labyrinth for me. Pan's Labyrinth, to be sure, is darker than The City Of Lost Children. But it's monolithically darker in tone. In The City Of Lost Children, there is a great deal of ambiguity. There is horror, a French quasi-incestuous relationship, and monsters in all sorts of forms. Anything can happen, making it entertaining and creepy every viewing. In Pan's Labyrinth, the end is revealed in the opening moments and all of the characters are either emotionally cold or outright creepy. Ofelia's mythical hero, Pan, is almost as terrifying as Capitan Vidal. They both speak to the girl in similar harsh tones.

Ofelia's world is filled with brutality. Kind people around her are being killed as an example to the revolutionaries fighting against Franco's oppressive regime. Vidal is part of the mechanism sent to the countryside to find and eliminate the rebellion there. Ofelia's emotional needs are anything but met, so as a psychological tale, Pan's Labyrinth creates a very real and viable solution for the child; an escape into an imaginary world. Highlighting the horrible reality with the fantastic.

But beyond that intelligent exploration into the resiliency of a child, Pan's Labyrinth falls down completely on the character level. Ofelia is the naive little girl who must be protected and is doing what she can to protect herself, Capitan Vidal is a horrendous ogre, not illustrating any real love for Ofelia's mother either. The revolutionaries who are fighting Franco's forces are heroes and their people make noble sacrifices to protect one another, even at the cost of their own lives.

But they are nothing more than that. All of the characters, as a result, are "types" as opposed to vibrant individuals. Even the title character is strangely dull. Creepy and seemingly manipulative, Pan seems more a way for Ofelia to justify the cruelty around her than offer a genuine escape from it.

That said, the acting is decent. Despite the script which limits them to fairly dismal characters, the performances are good. Doug Jones, who performed the physical work of Abe Sapien in del Toro's cinematic version of Hellboy (reviewed here!) performs quite well as both Pan and the Pale Man. Jones has a wonderful sense of physical movement that makes him an obvious choice for roles that keep him layered in prosthetics. As Pan, he is able to emote through his eyes and with this fluid sense of body language (most recognizably with his hand gesticulations).

Sergi Lopez performs the role of Vidal and he is just the right side of "over the top" as the villainous Capitan. Lopez plays the part with a sense that his character is constantly on edge, shifting his eyes wonderfully every time he is in an environment he cannot control. Lopez is menacing in the part and there is a sense while he is on the screen that he could belt or shoot anyone at any time. Given his kinder nature in the DVD extras, this would seem to be a decent performance.

Ivana Baquero plays Ofelia and she does the role fine, though it's not much of a stretch for her. Baquero is charged with playing a little girl living on the border between reality and a fantasy realm. This does not require much acting for a child actor as young actors live that same border. Baquero holds her own with the adults, though, revealing a maturity beyond her years.

The DVD set comes with a bonus DVD loaded with features. There is a commentary track, deleted scenes, and the usual slew of featurettes, emphasizing the preproduction, shooting of the film and the special effects. The bonus features are quite informative for Americans wondering about the technicalities of making a film, especially outside Hollywood!

But the net result is a film that's not mind-blowing cinematic experience I had hoped for. It is low on character and the plot is nothing that has not been done before. It's enjoyable, but it's not all it's cracked up to be.

If you've not seen the film, it's certainly worth a watch, though one must be prepared for an adult film with a surprising amount of violence, often involving women and children. But for the buy? I'd make sure you like it more than I did before adding this one to your permanent collection.

For other fantasy films, please visit my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
The Harry Potter Saga
Breaking Dawn, Part 1


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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