From the man who brought you Mimic, Blade II and Hellboy (yes, don't get too excited) comes one of the best movies of 2006 and a potential candidate for Best Foreign Language picture at this year's Oscars. Pan's Labyrinth (Laberinto del Fauno, El) takes Guillermo del Toro's unique eye for creature design and wraps it around a tragic and brutal World War II-era tale that strikes a lot of similarities to modern America. It is adventure, fantasy, war and political commentary all rolled into one wonderful package.
Pan's Labyrinth is not what you'd expect from the trailers. The advertisements have marketed Pan's Labyrinth as one girl's descent into an underworld of fantasy and frightening creatures, an R-rated, adult fairy tale, but it is really not that. The movie is a drama set in 1944 Spain where the country is ruled by brutal soldiers who do their duty without question and where a resistance is slowly cropping up to fight back. Many characters die, often in brutal and unpleasant ways, and that brings us to Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl who has traveled to the countryside with her pregnant mother to stay with her vicious step father on the edge of the front lines. As her mother struggles through a difficult pregnancy and the war rages on under the guidance of her "new father", Ofelia encounters a fairy who leads her to a creepy faun creature who informs her that she is the long lost daughter of the underworld king and that she must complete three tasks to return underground.
The movie is about many things. It is about a child's innocence during war, a government's resistance to what is moral and right, about the rights of people to fight for what they believe in, and so on and so forth. For those looking for political commentary, the allusions are subtle, but they are there nonetheless. del Toro's comparison of Spain's fascist regime to modern America is clear, as the soldiers in this tiny government defy their morals and proceed with no questions asked. It takes the youngest of them all, the new generation, to stand up for what is right.
Of course, those not looking for a politically-motivated movie should not fear; Pan's Labyrinth is a masterpiece on the surface as well. The film is beautifully constructed, well acted and features some wonderful special effects when needed. The creature design is wonderful and alarmingly creepy, especially that of the faun and of the creature who has eyeballs in his hands. Parents beware: this is not a child's fairy tale. Even the good guys are creepy here, and the faun in The Chronicles of Narnia cannot be compared to the monstrosity of Pan's faun.
The movie works on so many levels there is no reason to go into much detail on any of them. The film is brutally realistic and wonderfully imaginative at the same time; as mentioned before, characters are killed in droves and the film rarely shies away from hiding the bloodshed. Amazingly, this violence is needed to offset Ofelia's adventure; while sometimes dangerous, her fantasies always feel safer and better than the real world around her. del Toro switches between these two worlds seamlessly - could he possibly get a Best Director nod for his work?
Pan's Labyrinth is an amazing and unique film, one of the best of 2006 and certainly one of the most memorable. I worry that due to its uniqueness it will be overlooked come Oscar time, but this is a must see film.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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