Pan's Labyrinth

Film , Drama
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A girl on the cusp of adolescence is inducted into a threatening fantasy world where she discovers her own power. It’s a familiar, even archetypal story well suited to the dreamlike parallel reality of cinema: Alice, Wendy and Dorothy found their ways on screen and have been joined by the young heroines of ‘Labyrinth’, ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Mirrormask’, to name just a few. ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is another version of the tale, but an unusual one in that it isn’t suitable for children. Not only is it replete with violence visited on the body, but its lessons – in the inadequacy of fantasy as a countermeasure to repression – might have sensitive youngsters chucking in the towel.

As in ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ and a prospective new project, ‘3993’, del Toro (who is Mexican) arranges his supernatural drama against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. The setting is 1944, so the conflict proper is over, but skirmishes continue between anti-fascist guerrillas and forces under the command of sadistic, narcissistic Captain Vidal (Sergi López) – or ‘father’, as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is instructed to address him when she arrives at his forest base with her pregnant, ailing mother (Ariadna Gil), Vidal’s new bride. The maid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), is friendly and in some ways a mirror character for Ofelia, but the girl is basically alone – until a large cricket transforms into a fairy and leads her to a crumbling stone maze in the grounds, where an ageing faun greets her as a lost princess, pending her completion of certain tasks…

It’s no coincidence that the fairy appears after the double-killing that establishes this fable isn’t kids’ stuff, or that the jeopardy of Ofelia’s challenges pales in comparison to real-world struggles. Reality increasingly dominates the story; in fact, the faun’s realm can seem merely the stage for a series of set-pieces whose grotesque and detailed design impresses more than any sense of momentum or high stakes.

Yet as escapist fantasies go, this supernature is markedly muddy – both literally, as when Ofelia ventures into the belly of a great tree, and in the general creepiness that marks even those ostensibly sympathetic to her, like the faun, with its unnerving habit of appearing in her bedroom. The labyrinth has echoes of authentic atrocity: a pile of children’s shoes lies ominously near the banqueting table of a bald-bodied, blank-faced baby-eater. At least as evident, though, is del Toro’s own immersion in fantasy and horror cinema, with nods to ‘Don’t Look Now’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Shining’ among others (not to mention Goya and ‘The Spirit of the Beehive’). It’s as a filmmaker, rather than storyteller, that del Toro is most successful here: a disjunction remains between the story’s childlike form and its gruesome execution, but few directors are so adept at conveying both the uncanny in the real and the recognisable in the fantastic.

Release details

Rated: 15
Release date: Friday November 24 2006
Duration: 120 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriter: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ariadna Gil
Ivana Baquero
Maribel Verdu
Sergi López
Doug Jones