Monday, January 14, 2008

Pan's Labyrinth

Childhood's End

There are some films about childhood and children that should never be seen by them. "To Kill a Mockingbird." "Night of the Hunter." "Lord of the Flies."

And this one.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is in the grand traditon of "fantasy worlds within worlds" stories ala Oz and Narnia and the others that have been dusted off and are in various stages of film-production since "The Lord of the Rings" hit the big time.

But "Pan's Labyrinth" is an original story by its director Guillermo Del Toro and is deeply rooted in his dark-gothic sensibilities.

It is Spain in 1944 and Ofelia and her very pregnant mother are going to live with Spain's version of an evil step-parent--an autocratic fascist captain smoking out a small cadre of rebels in the hills. Though his wife is frail and sick, Capitán Vidal has demanded she give birth to their son at his command post, owing to some generational obsession. Little Ofelia hates him, hates moving and is forthright about her feelings, that is when she isn't retreating to her fairy-tale stories. Along the way in a road alive with floating seed-fluff she finds a piece of masonry that is the eye of a weathered totem. When she replaces it, she releases...a creature, a shape-shifter, a familiar that follows her to the dank, depressing castle of her evil step-father and plunges her into the dark underworld where she is welcomed as a prodigal banished princess who must complete three tasks to return home.

Sound familiar? Of course it is. It's a fairy-tale. And Del Toro excavates deep into our collective subconscious to present the episodes in the two worlds and decorates them in his distinctive chiaroscuro designs that are gross and horrifying but also startlingly beautiful.

Would that children could see this film without fear and that, as in the film, reality could be transposed with fantasy and disbelief in one could be interchanged with the other. For in the deep recesses of Del Toro's darkness is a damned good story with a denoument that is earned in triumph even while it tears at your heart.

Del Toro has always dredged through the creepy shoals of fantasy and horror, scoring hits with "Blade II" and "Hellboy," but those films, like so much of the horror genre, depended on an audience's perverse charity to overlook lapses in logic as well as taste, and he's often taken advantage of that to achieve his effects. This film is not so lax. It earns its shocks with a discipline of story-logic and makes his fantasy elements an integral part of its real-world story. For fantasy to reflect reality has long been a staple of this genre of film. Here, Del Toro has gathered his elements of horror and fantasy and made them reflect a world-view where it is justified.

It is his first perfect film.*

It may well be his masterpiece.**

But it's not for the faint of heart. It's not for the innocent.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is a full-price ticket.

* Well, almost perfect. The sound design is too much (especially in the squishy squinchy sounds of the Captain), too obvious and mixed far too loudly, but I'll give that a pass.

** Also, you should be warned--do NOT walk in late to this movie. The first shot is a crucial and haunting one. It provides a context that resonates and expands the film.

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