Lois Tilton February 13th, 2007
I don’t usually review films – in large part, because I rarely go out to see them. However, having recently viewed this one, I recognize it as the sort of fantasy tale that I do usually review. Here is my take – in which I discuss the ending of the film.
My reviews of short genre fiction can be read at www.irosf.com
Review: Pan’s Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro
This is a film in two parts, joined not-quite-successfully into a whole.
One is a historical piece about Franco’s Spain, where the brutal fascist Captain Vidal is ruthlessly hunting down the remnants of the Republican resistance in the last year of WWII.
The other is a child’s fairy tale about a princess from an underground realm who, once upon a time, escaped into the sunlight â€“ and died there. The fairytale princess is reborn as a mortal child into the other story, for Ofelia’s doomed, widowed mother has married Captain Vidal, and is now undergoing a difficult pregnancy. Despite the risk to her life, he has insisted that she join him in the remote mill where he has made his headquarters. On the journey, Ofelia, a dreamy child who loves to read fairy tales [effectively played by young Ivana Baquero] encounters a ruined cenotaph and is recognized by its guardian, a creature she calls a fairy.
The moment Ofelia meets the Captain, as his black-gloved hand closes menacingly around hers, we know that she is in danger. Soon afterward, when we see him deliberately beat a young man to death in the presence of his father, we realize just how deadly the peril is. Ofelia’s mother wants her to call the Captain “Father;” she refuses, remaining true to her own dead father.
In the meantime, her other true father is seeking her out. The fairy leads her to an ancient labyrinth, where she encounters a rather sinister faun who tells her she can return to the underground kingdom where her father is king, that she is a princess. But first, she must prove herself worthy by performing the traditional three tasks of fairy tales.
From this point, the path of the story should be clear, with its two arcs converging: as the Captain threatens Ofelia, she will attempt with increasing desperation to complete her tasks in order to escape from him into the safety of the underworld. Only it doesn’t quite happen that way. Sergi LÃ³pez plays the Captain with consummate menace, as a cold, pathologically damaged man fixated on the son who will bear his name. But little of this menace is directed at Ofelia; even when he catches her trying to join the resistance fighters after he mother’s death, he does not punish her. He is simply not interested in her.
And while Ofelia clearly dislikes the Captain, she does not seem particularly motivated to escape from him, even after her mother has died. Rather, she is seduced or enchanted by the fairytale world, by the notion of being a fairytale princess. She is not obviously desperate, as she should be. When the faun tells her that she has failed her second test, she abandons her attempts to enter the underworld until he returns to offer her another chance. It is the faun who seems desperate, not Ofelia. These two characters, Ofelia and the Captain, dominate the film, but each in their separate story arcs. Until the very end, they do not confront one another directly, which would have unified their stories into a thematically coherent whole.
The two halves of the film are disconnected in other ways. The historical story, where the Captain is at the center, is brutally real. Its close attention to detail compels the belief of the audience. The fairy tale scenes, on the other hand, do not. Now, in many such stories there is a deliberate ambiguity about the element of the fantastic, leaving open the possibility that such scenes are only a dream, or the product of the child’s imagination. In such cases, it would be appropriate to make them appear less realistic. However, this is not the case here. The mandrake root the faun gives Ofelia to put under her mother’s bed is quite visible to both her mother and the Captain. We are apparently meant to believe it is real, however the CGI screams: fake! Most of the other effects and the fantasy scenery are likewise obviously fake: the labyrinth, the dying tree, the monsters. They would strongly compel disbelief under any circumstances, but the contrast with the realism that surrounds them doubles the impression of falseness.
This contrast is particularly stark in the scene where Ofelia crawls into the heart of the dying tree. The ground there is muddy; Ofelia’s new patent-leather shoes [this at the height of WWII rationing] are already ruined, and she is wearing the new dress her sick mother has made her. Removing the dress, which falls into the mud, Ofelia crawls into the hollow tree, where the ground is a deep, thick viscous brown wallow. We see the mud clinging to Ofelia’s underwear, to her limbs, matting her hair, smearing her face. Nothing is more real than that mud. In contrast, the giant pillbugs that live inside the tree are cartoon-like. And the giant toad inspires only disgust and perhaps derision, not fear. There is no real menace. Thus we can not see Ofelia as a hero for vanquishing the toad. What we fear is not the cartoon creature, but the real punishment that we know is waiting for Ofelia when she returns home with her ruined dress and shoes. The menace lies in the Captain, expecting her to appear neat and clean at his dinner party. Yet, nothing happens. The Captain does not care that Ofelia is missing. Twice, then, this scene misses when it could have so easily delivered.
The film also strikes a false note when Ofelia is sent to retrieve an object from the child-eating Pale Man’s banqueting hall. It is just not creditable that Ofelia, who has listened to the fairies from the first moment they appeared to her, would now wave away their urgent warning not to touch any of the food on the Pale Man’s table, as she had been instructed by the faun. She displays no overwhelming hunger that would compel her to do this. Nor, when she wakes the monster in consequence, do we have a moment of doubt that she will escape, at the last instant, from the clumsy, slow, shambling thing â€“ a film clichÃ©. The scene could have been cut whole from a monster cartoon for children.
Not all the CGI effects are failures. The book the faun has given Ofelia, which writes itself for her as she opens its pages, is quite well-done, in particular the scene where blood spreads across the page and we know that Ofelia’s mother is suffering a miscarriage. But it is the only truly magical thing in the film, the only effect in which the intended adult audience can believe without a struggle to disregard the clumsiness of the animation and design. It could so easily have been otherwise, because, seeing this fairy world through Ofelia’s wondering eyes, we truly do want to believe. If only the effects weren’t working so hard to convince us otherwise.
Another problem with this film, though it may not be so apparent to all viewers, concerns the mythology. The original, Spanish title is El Laberinto del Fauno, which translates directly to “The Labyrinth of the Faun.” This is both more euphonious and accurate than the English “Pan’s Labyrinth,” as the god Pan himself appears nowhere in the film; the creature that Ofelia encounters in the labyrinth is a faun, although its appearance is more satanic than faunish â€“ another unfortunate effect from this film’s designers.
However, both Pan and fauns were creatures of the wildland in ancient mythology, the uncultivated woods and fields. Yet we never find the faun in the forest where it ought to be, only in the labyrinth [and Ofelia's room]. And the labyrinth is no wild, uncultivated place, it is merely a portal to Ofelia’s true home: the underworld. In short, Pan is the wrong god. The right god should have been Haides, lord of the dead, for this tale is really a tale of the underworld; it is the tale of Persephone, inverted â€“ the daughter of the god and goddess of death, who wanders out into the world of life and sunlight to be lost, then returned. The scene as Ofelia finds her mother enthroned beside the lord of the underworld â€“ rejoined with her dead parents, escaping from the anti-father, the Captain â€“ could have been a powerful thematic climax to this story, unifying its two arcs. If only the film had been telling this story.