Once upon a time (1944, to be exact), there was a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose name, with its connotations of suicide and high culture, suggests the tragic loss of innocence. Ofelia's mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) married a tailor who symbolized the old Spain, and after his death, she married Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a fascist who symbolizes Franco's new Spain. Ofelia and her pregnant mother went to join Captain Vidal in the countryside, where he was fighting the rebels. Ofelia was a very imaginative girl and made some new friends, including a faun (Doug Jones) who informed her that she wasn't really human, and had been sent from a magical world to Earth. To return to the magical world, however, Ofelia would have to perform three tasks before the full moon -- commonly associated with fertility -- came to term. Between observing various fascist military abuses, Ofelia went on various expeditions that were filled with all manner of fetal imagery and oozing fluids, constant reminders of her mother's pregnancy, which she fears more intuitively than rationally. Ofelia's morbid quests turns out to be remarkably prescient, as Captain Vidal did not love her mother at all and only wanted a child who would represent the new fascist Spain.
Pan's Labyrinth is Guillermo del Toro's second examination of the Spanish Civil War, and while it is an improvement over his stultifying first effort, The Devil's Backbone, it doesn't hold a tapered candle to his terrific blockbuster work (Blade II, Hellboy). Unlike The Devil's Backbone, which was dull from start to finish, Pan's Labyrinth includes six knock-out minutes (out of its 112 minute running time) that make the film worth seeing. The sequence follows Ofelia through her first two tasks, and they are doozies: del Toro offers vivid, terrifyingly awesome images (a grotesque toad; a sort of fetal man with eyes in his hands) that rank with the best of Terry Gilliam's work.
The rest of the movie is watchable despite the egregious simplicity of its politics. Del Toro suffers from delusions of intellectual accomplishment; rather than let us simply enjoy the elements of fantasy, he insists we take them seriously as well, straining to integrate the undeniably grave weight of history. Too bad, then, that the quest sequences are far more vividly realized than anything else in his movie. The monsters inhabiting Ofelia's mind are certainly more nuanced than Captain Vidal, whom we realize is cold and unlikable by the severe annoyance that tardiness arouses in him; the random acts of sadism and murder that follow are mere confirmation, and any message subtler than "Fascism is bad, as is killing people," gets lost in the shuffle. The faun and attendant fairies, by contrast, are perfectly balanced creations, with just the right mix of charm and creepiness, and the monsters are even better.
After decoding the allegorical, insultingly schematic framework and accepting del Toro's agenda ("Fantasy Is Very Important! It is not just a genre for dorks! It can address serious issues allegorically! Fascism is bad and is the opposite of fantasy!"), there's nothing left but to appreciate his obvious technical skill while waiting for the quest sequences to resume. Fortunately, the film’s redemptive mystical elements are distributed fairly evenly, leavening the pretensions of Pan's Labryinth with sequences where del Toro's reach doesn’t exceed his grasp. That will have to serve until del Toro's next work for hire.
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