First Time Viewing: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of 5 stars

This is a new type of post I will be introducing to my blog. In addition to reviewing new releases, I will be also be going back to movies that have come out in the year’s prior that I have never seen. Most of the time they will be well regarded/critically acclaimed films (such as this one) but I may also take the time to review “so bad it’s goo:d type films or just movies I’ve personally been very interested in seeing. With that in mind, let’s get on with the review.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a Spanish language film directed and written by Guillermo del Toro and released in the United States on December 29, 2006. Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in 1944 Spain, where an 11-year old girl named Ofelia and her recently remarried mother are relocated to a remote forest. There, Spanish soldiers, led by a ruthless Captain who also happens to be Ofelia’s mother’s new husband, seek to eradicate the rebels. When Ofelia discovers an ancient Labyrinth inhabited by several fantastical beings, she soon finds herself on a quest to escape further into this fantastical world, all while taking care of her mother and evading the Captain’s wrath.

I was just made aware that this film was in Spanish not too long before viewing it, and I had never seen a full-length foreign feature before, so I wasn’t sure how that would affect my viewing experience. Much to my surprise, I had no problem both following the story and enjoying the nice visuals. Part of that, I think, has to do with the fact that this movie is more visually than dialgoue is driven, or at least, it’s not very dialogue heavy. It’s not like, say, a Marvel film, where there’s a lot of dialogue and exposition needed to keep track of the story. The story, in fact, is very simple, yet it carries so much dramatic and emotional weight. This isn’t just a film about a girl meeting a bunch of cool creatures, but a story about one girl’s desire to escape into the fairy tales she loves so dearly and away from her harsh reality. The narrative constantly shifts from Ofelia’s (Ivana Baquero) perspective and her connection to both the war and fantasy, to Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), one of the Captain’s servants, and her connection to this young girl and the war.

What I thought was very well done is this constant shift in perspective. The fantasy stuff is kept surprisingly dark and grounded, in addition to being very imaginative and mystical. This was all made possible through the connection of the girl. At first, I didn’t really like her acting that much, as I feel she didn’t react to all of this fantasy stuff as a girl would. That is until I realized it’s because all of these creatures and magic is very much real to her. This idea that the fantasy is as real to Ofelia as our own world, intertwines the two worlds in a way that’s both clever and heartbreaking.

In short, while the story is fairly simple, it makes the movie feel almost like it actually is a fairy tale, but with a darker, more adult twist, while still having the magic and simple, yet identifiable characters. Captain Vidal (Sergi López) I thought was a fairly strong antgonist. While he was not very complex, the intent to make him more of a monster than the actual monsters Ofelia encounters certainly works to the film’s advantage. I also thought that the connection between Ofelia and her mother (Ariadna Gill) gave the film a huge emotional core as they had a very strong bond. My personal favorite performance was from Mercedes. I thought she was a great character and provided a great alternate perspective to give some humanity to the human world and further connect the two competing realms.

The Pale Man (played by Doug Jones)

With all that being said, I think it would be a mistake to not talk about the creatures in this film. While the CGI effects do not hold up super well, they are far and few and do not take away from the overall quality of the film. Whoever designed and brought to life some of these creatures and designs deserves an Oscar (hehe and they did get one) because these are some of the greatest practical creature designs that I’ve seen. I think what really amazes me is the fact that the Faun and the Paleman (both played physically by Doug Jones, whom also played the sea creature in another Del Torro film: The Shape of Water) is actually there. They aren’t CGI creations or anything. This passion and effort (coupled with the brilliant designs that don’t even look like a human is inside of them) for these monsters really come through in how amazing they look. The Pale Man sequence in this film is one of my personal favorite scenes, as I found it so gripping and terrifying. The monsters are also complimented by great production design. Though not very colorful, all of the sets are so detailed, massive and strange that they manage to be almost as memorable as the creatures.

This film, though not a horror film, does have some very intense sequences. I mentioned the pale man scene, but there are so many intense, satisfying, and intensely satisfying moments, that I couldn’t imagine skipping most of this movie. The scenes in the real world still manage to be just as exciting and interesting as the fantasy stuff, which I think could have easily been some of the most boring parts of the movie. All of this leads up to an ending that will leave you awestruck. I myself sat there for a few moments (holding back tears) wondering how I should feel.

Guillermo Del Torro without a doubt had so much passion and love for this project, and it shows in nearly every frame. It’s so hard to often create a narrative like this, but Del Torro’s writing and direction, coupled with a brilliant makeup and production design, great cinematography, fitting performances, and a beautiful and chilling score, all contribute to an amazing film which is, dare I say, a masterpiece that I will certainly revisit again.

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