Pan's Labyrinth Disappoints
You couldn't ask for a better director than Guillermo del Toro -- visually inventive, intellectually nimble, devoted and self-effacing -- but with his latest film, Pan's Labyrinth, his technique outshines his film making, and the result is a movie that's more admirable than it is enjoyable.
There's enough in Pan's Labyrinth to make it worth watching, because even on his worst day (Blade II) Guillermo del Toro brings more to the table than 90% of working film directors. But at his best ( Hellboy) he's capable of creating one of the most profound and interesting superhero mythologies ever brought to film. That's partly why I found Pan's Labyrinth so disappointing.
As a companion piece to del Toro's fantastic and fantastical 2001 film, The Devil's Backbone , Pan's Labyrinth treads much of the same territory but with different results. Both films are set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War and post-war Fascist repression. Both films feature orphaned or semi-orphaned child protagonists dropped into unfriendly social milieus. And both films showcase del Toro's flair for creating self-contained, mythologized realities where ghosts, fairies and other such creatures interact with ordinary humans in a way that's inextricably bound to the film's story. But where The Devil's Backbone uses careful plotting and clever visuals to meticulously interweave the fantastical and realistic narrative threads, Pan's Labyrinth is all baroque styling and tangential plot turns that bog down a fairly thin skeleton of a movie.
Arriving with her ailing, heavily pregnant mother at an isolated mill that has been transformed into an outpost for Nationalist troops, 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) experiences a brutal adjustment to life under her new stepfather, who (if such a thing is possible) is even more of a Fascist in private than in public. The unrelentingly villainous Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) is written and played as such a one-note character it's almost comical; I wouldn't have been surprised to see him rip the heads off kittens with fanged teeth.
Immediately upon her arrival Ofelia is led by a precocious grasshopper to a nearby stone labyrinth where she meets Pan, who tells her an elaborate story about how the god of the underworld is waiting for his long-lost daughter to return. Conveniently, Ofelia is the chosen one. If she completes three tasks, she can shed her mortal existence and take her rightful place as princess of this mytho-universe. In the meantime, the leftist rebels -- aided by the mill's doctor and head maid -- have stepped up their insurgency, and Ofelia's mother has grown sicker.
The real and mythical storylines aren't well integrated. Events in one world rarely have vital impact on events in the other. And the halfhearted attempts to bridge the two worlds are capped by a hollow climax that essentially says: You can't always fix things in the real world, but in your fantasies you can do anything. Instead of an antidote to saccharine fairytale endings, it feels like a cop out. Guillermo del Toro seems too smart to top off such a labyrinthine movie with such a flimsy ending, but Pan's Labyrinth is like an overly rich tiramisu doused with cheap Nestle Quick.