This is the last week of looking back at the films of director Guillermo del Toro. And I have saved the best for last. While I have enjoyed all of his films, my favorite is Pan’s Labyrinth. With its haunting/enchanting visual style, strong performances, and a story that works equally well as a Gothic fairy tale and war drama, Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most amazing pieces of filmmaking I have ever witnessed. It’s that good.
The story is set during the Spanish Civil War and alternates between that dramatic story line and the fantasy one involving the heroine and her trips into a magical labyrinth.
In 1944, in the post-Civil War in Spain, rebels still fight in the mountains against the Falangist troops. The young and imaginative Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant and sick mother Carmen Vidal (Ariadna Gil) to the country to meet and live with her stepfather, the sadistic and cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), in an old mill. During the night, Ofelia meets a fairy and together they go to a pit in the center of a maze where they meet a faun that tells that she is a princess from a kingdom in the underground. He also tells that her father is waiting for her, but she needs to accomplish three tasks first. Meanwhile, she becomes friends with the servant Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who is the sister of one of the rebels and actually is giving support to the group. In a dark, harsh and violent world, Ofelia lives her magical world trying to survive her tasks and sees her father and king again.–IMDB
By having two story lines going at the same time, there was a chance one would have suffered and it would have felt like two different movies. But the screenplay is so skillfully balanced that both get their due. And when they overlap it doesn’t feel forced. Credit director Guillermo del Toro for such a well-done screenplay. He can write as well as direct.
Why do I hold this film in such high esteem? Well, the visual look of this film is one of the most breathtaking I have ever seen. The art direction by Eugenio Caballero and Pilar Revuelta won a well-deserved Oscar. One of the great joys of watching a movie is occasionally seeing images on the screen that make your jaw drop. The labyrinth that Ofelia delves into is one of those times. It’s dark and beautiful with its weird creatures, including creepy insects, a faun, and a creature that chases Ofelia after she stops for a quick snack that looks like it’s in thundering need of a manicure. While del Toro’s films have shown fantastical elements before, Pan’s Labyrinth is the first time he creates a whole dark, Gothic fairy tale world. It feels like something straight out of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Once you start watching this movie, you’ll fall under its visual spell. I also want to mention the contribution of Javier Navarrete. His score is haunting and brilliant. It does a lot to establish the mood of the film.
But this film isn’t just about what happens in the labyrinth. The drama set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War is equally riveting. I must say that Captain Vidal is one of the most chilling villains I have seen in any movie. He’s absolutely sadistic not just the way he handles his military duties, but in his home life with Ofelia and her mother as well. Child actors can be hit and miss. But Ivana Baquero hits a home run as Ofelia. She has an incredible screen presence. She feels like a real kid: curious, vulnerable, and protective of her mother. The film has some really heavy dramatic scenes. And she never misses a beat.
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most magical viewing experiences you will ever have. Beyond the technical wizardry of the production design, special effects. etc. is a story about a complex and fascinating heroine trying to deal with the drama in the labyrinth and in the real world. It’s visually mesmerizing and dramatically compelling. It’s one of my absolute favorite films.