Pan’s Labyrinth came out way back in 2006 and was a phenomenal success both with the audiences and critics alike. This is truly one of those rare films that are able to transcend the barriers of age, gender and sensibilities. It is one of the most gruesome and yet subtly beautiful rendering of any fairy tale that I have seen in a long long time. We generally do not associate the term gruesome with fairy tales but that is exactly what this film is at many junctures. At the same time it conveys beauty and emotion where it has to and also is brimming with a child like innocence at many points increasing its reach.
The film begins with an exposition letting us know that the princess of the underworld who wanted to see the world above and walked out of her safe heaven only to realize what grave mistake she has done. The princess’ soul remains trapped in the world above and in the body of a mortal waiting for her chance to make her way back to the underworld. At the same juncture in 1944 Falangist Spain a dreamy eyed girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), fascinated by fairy-tales, is sent along with her pregnant mother to live with her new stepfather, a ruthless captain of the Spanish army. During the night, she meets a fairy who takes her to an old Faun in the center of the labyrinth. He tells her she’s a princess, but must prove her royalty by surviving three gruesome tasks. If she fails, she will never prove herself to be the true princess and will never see her real father, the king, again.
From here on, the story unfolds in two tracks. One involving the the fight between the freedom fighters of Spain and the Falangist Spanish Army while the other is about Ofelia performing the three tasks assigned to her by the Faun. While one of the tracks is a strong war drama involving real characters and some on your face brutality particularly unleashed by Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who happens to be Ofelia’s stepfather, the other track is surreal with fairy creatures and fantasy elements involving Ofelia and the three tasks she must perform. It is hard to say whether this track actually unfolds or unfolds in Ofelia’s mind alone but it does leave a strong impression on the narrative. There is practically no reference of this track to have actually happened throughout the narrative which makes it that much more effective as we don’t have to believe in a fairy tale in the midst of a war and yet we can enjoy it to the fullest from Ofelia’s perspective.
Guillermo Del Toro has a strong sense of visuals and Pan’s Labyrinth is easily one of his most beautifully shot films. Saturated bright colors, imaginative rendering of the fairy creatures, superb art works and great attention to details builds the fairy and the real world of the film in a manner which is not only believable but highly effective. Aesthetically speaking there is very little difference in the manner in which the two worlds look but then that seems to be a reference to showing the two worlds co-existing. The interiors, the hallways and the sometimes dimly lit Labyrinth are marvelous to look at. The makeup of the film received rave reviews and I will only second the resounding praise. When I speak of the makeup, I have to mention the outstanding work done on Doug Jones who plays the Faun and the marauding Pale man. The Pale Man was a tad bit more shocking than the Faun thanks to its design. Having eyes in the hand is something we have never seen before. Even the faun seems as real as he can be.
The cinematography and the editing are used to induce tension. Take for instance the scene when Ofelia goes to complete a task and eats something from the Pale Man’s plate when she was not supposed to. The man follows her and she runs only to have the exit closed. She then has to create a new exit with the man following her. This scene will make you stand up and take notice. That is the case because of the manner in which it is shot, showing the spatial distance between the girl and the aggressor giving you a feel of how close she is to danger and also the different perspectives of the same shot (that you are able to see because of the editing) giving you all the angles of the same shot. The cinematography is also used effectively to infuse beauty in the narrative.
The special effects are used sparingly and yet have a huge impact on the overall narrative style. Be it subtle effects like the bloodshed, the dismemberment of the freedom fighters or Captain Vidal himself in the end or the highly detailed sequence in which Ofelia goes down and dirty to retrieve a key from a giant frog-like fairy creature, the effects hold their own. The design of the labyrinth is another effect which really gets to you. The smallish fairies are beautifully designed too. The sound design complements the rest of the film superbly. Be it the terrific background score or the subtle sound mixes, the feeling of realism is never compromised. When we see the fairy for the first time, the perfection of the sound design can truly be felt. In a 5.1 Dolby surround system, the hissing noise of the fairy flapping its wing can be felt changing channels as it moves across your view in different angles. The atmospheric sounds are picked up beautifully as well.
A word about the performances. Ivana Baquero is brilliant as Ofelia. You are able to forge a connect with her character right from the onset which makes the film that much more captivating. She is believable in some of the most unbelievable sequences. Her scenes with her mother are emotionally charged and are alone worth the price of admission. Sergi López as Vidal is perfectly hateable. Trust me! You will love to hate him. His essay is in strong keeping with the mood of the character and the feel of the narrative. I loved the strong woman character that Maribel Verdú plays as Mercedes. She has a great arc to her character which is well defined in the narrative.
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the most richly textured and endlessly entertaining films of all times. It is Guillermo Del Toro’s finest film till date. Loaded with potent human drama, sparkling visuals and great characters, it is one of the must watch films of all times. Watch it at the earliest if you haven’t already.