I’ll never understand American movie studios. Not only do their choices as to what to make puzzle me, but also their decisions about when to release certain films. Case in point is the film that currently ranks among the best reviewed movies of 2006, according to Rotten Tomatoes, with a 97% positive consensus – Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno).
The Spanish language adult fairy tale premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May to standing ovations and then had its U.S. debut as the closing night selection at the New York Film Festival in October. Common sense would lead one to believe that such prestigious honors might translate into end of the year awards recognition and the strong box office that can result from such accolades.
So why would Picturehouse, the releasing studio and a subsidiary of Time Warner that formed as a joint venture between New Line and HBO, hold off on releasing del Toro’s film until December 29 and then only in four major cities? Whatever the rationale, awards watchers seem to agree that the late release has hindered the film’s chances for Academy Award nominations aside from an expected slot as Mexico’s entry in the Foreign Language category.
That’s a shame too, because Pan’s Labyrinth is the kind of movie sorely missed from the multiplexes nowadays. It’s not quite at the masterpiece level as some critics are portraying it, but I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the sheer imagination and artistry that bursts through the screen. Movies have always succeeded by their unique ability to present us with things we’ve never seen before. With the increasing use of digital effects, much of what’s been fed to us has become boringly expected in its fake carnage and slick explosions. There’s a clinical aspect that’s emerged through the over-reliance on expensive special effects more akin to video games than the cinema. Yet, without a compelling story, most of these effects-laden blockbuster hopefuls become utterly forgettable or not even worthwhile and punish their audience with a fatiguing use of superficial green-screen moviemaking.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, which del Toro also wrote, we are introduced to Ofelia and her pregnant mother just as they are to arrive at the temporary military home of Captain Vidal, who’s been assigned to eliminate opponents of the fascist Franco regime following the end of the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia’s father has been dead a few years and her mother has married the Captain, who wants to be near his new child when it’s born.
Ofelia is unhappy about the move and cannot understand why her mother now asks her to call the Captain “father.” Mercedes (played by Maribel Verdú in a role so different from Y tu mamá también that I didn’t realize it was the same actress) helps take care of Ofelia and her mother while the latter is confined to bed from the pregnancy. As Ofelia is wandering around the wooded area of the military base, she discovers a labyrinth that unlocks a dark world and provides an escape from the horrific Captain. Guided by buzzing insects that turn into glowing fairies, the young girl meets the Faun and is told of her place in the history of the labyrinth. She soon courageously sets out on a number of tasks assigned by the Faun.
There’s no denying del Toro’s dazzling visuals here, powerful enough to transport the audience into the dark, uncertain world the director has impressively created. It’s easy to get caught up in a movie when it’s being projected onto a huge screen in a darkened room, but Pan’s Labyrinth goes a few steps further by placing the viewer in a completely foreign and fictional setting with creatures never before seen and startling images you don’t always want to see. Del Toro deftly balances horrific violence with uncute and unfurry fantasy elements successfully enough to more than earn the film’s R rating. It’s far from child-friendly viewing and I almost wish the poster used a still of the first time we see Ofelia instead of the more ominously inviting picture of a little girl at the threshold of the labyrinth.
While Pan’s Labyrinth does suffer a bit from a somewhat simplistic story running parallel to the more fascinating visits to the titular labyrinth, del Toro has imbued his film with enough heartfelt sincerity to make the viewer forgive his use of a cliched evil stepfather. In most films, such a venal and mostly one-dimensional character might seem distractingly vicious, especially given how little insight we’re given into the cause of his actions apart from a broken pocketwatch. Here, however, his 'fascist for fascism’s sake', despite being the weakest part of the film, is made believable enough by Ofelia’s youthful innocence. If the little girl, as well as the audience, can believe in the goodness of the creatures from the labyrinth, not to mention their existence at all, then why could she not also intuit the sheer evil present in the Captain without looking for his redeeming or complicating qualities?
Even so, given the comparatively less interesting post-Spanish Civil War storyline, I would have liked to spend more time in the darkly alluring labyrinth. From the advertising campaign and the film’s title (which will surely have many moviegoers wondering about “Pan” since the English subtitles retain the Spanish-spoken name of Faun), audiences are led to believe that the ancient labyrinth is the focus of the movie. In reality, that’s not exactly true and I found myself frequently itching to return to that magical and hypnotic world when we were instead shown the Captain’s compound.
The Pale Man character was particularly interesting, with the detachable eyeballs fitting into his palms. Visually, that was my favorite scene, as we see Ofelia enter his cave through a chalk-drawn door and then realize she’s unable to recognize the forbidden feast too tempting for the young girl to resist. I was also surprised to learn that the same actor (Doug Jones) was behind the make-up of both the Faun and the Pale Man, memorizing his lines phonetically since he doesn’t speak Spanish.
Guillermo del Toro has made a beautiful movie out of grotesque ugliness. It’s certainly not for everyone, but, in transcending the typical fantasy film, it manages to appeal to a larger audience in search of darkly visual entertainment with more substance than the weekly summer blockbuster.
I also found it reminiscent of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, both in the theme of a young girl seeking to escape the harsh realities of life through strange, otherworldly characters and as a film that goes beyond the limits of its genre to captivate new viewers normally uninterested in such movies. It’s a bravura accomplishment and one best seen on the biggest screen possible with a sound system capable of making you feel like dragonfly fairies are buzzing around your head.