Minus Bowie

Pan’s Labyrinth is the best movie I’ve seen all year. Granted, it’s January 3, and Pan is the only movie I’ve seen all year. So if I’d had the misfortune to have seen Night at the Museum or Black Christmas yesterday, I guess they’d take top honors instead. The difference, of course, is that in a month or two, Pan’s Labyrinth is still likely to be the best movie I’ve seen all year. Yeah, eat that, semantics.

I very nearly skipped the movie altogether, for reasons that may be blamed entirely on the Internet. The simple fact is that I’ve refused to watch any Guillermo del Toro movie ever since Ain’t It Cool described his direction of Blade II in terms of oral sex. The fear that del Toro films would, by association, fill my mind with visions of Harry Knowles receiving sexual favors is a powerful deterrent. Should he ever use similar terms to describe food, I will inevitably die of starvation.

Also at fault was the movie’s poster, which featured a Tim Burton-esque gigantic tree and fun curlicue typography. Big Fish was pretty good, but maybe not worth shamelessly ripping off!

Fortunately, self-preservation lost out to the appeal of a quality trailer. And it turns out that Pan neither resembles anything Burton has ever directed nor brings to mind unspeakable Knowlesean physical pleasures. It is one of those movies that could easily be described as “dark,” although that suggests an element of cynicism not really present in the movie. It is almost bleak, but lacks the necessary degree of hopelessness. It is, rather, grim… or Grimm, if you will. Like the famous brothers’ original work, Pan features innocents caught up in terrible circumstances and turning to the fantastic — though not for escapism, because in these works the otherworldly is every bit as unpleasant as the real.

While the posters and trailer give the impression that Pan’s Labyrinth is mostly a quirky bit of fantasy escapism, it really isn’t; most of the movie transpires in WWII-era Spain amidst the Franco regime’s efforts to quash the freedom-loving pinkos who don’t think that brutal totalitarianism is totally awesome. Everyone who writes about the movie is quick to point out the shocking modern parallels to current world politics, apparently because they’re under the impression that no one has noticed that every movie of the past five years has shocking modern parallels to current world politics. (OMG guys I heard V for Vendetta was meant as be a subtle critique of the Bush administration! Can you imagine!?)

Really, the strained political allegories are just a distraction from the heart of the movie, which follows a young woman named Ofelia as she comes to terms with her new life. And, while she’s at it, to reclaim the magical royal heritage she lost in her last life.

Her quest begins in earnest when she discovers an ancient labyrinth in the woods near her new home and works her way to its center. There she encounters not a creamy caramel filling but rather a creepy faun who tells her that a magic picture book and a bit of determination will help her return to her former life.

It’s pretty standard fantasy stuff — dreamy-eyed child finds herself living out the faerie tales she should have outgrown already. Kinda like some other movie with “Labyrinth” in the title. Except that the dreamy stuff is pretty nightmarish, full of muck and monsters and horrible crawly things. And the real-world stuff is even worse, filmed with a ferocious brutality destined to cause an uproar from stupid parents who didn’t bother to take the “rated R” warning seriously. (But there’s a whimsical CG faun, like in Narnia! They couldn’t possibly mean that R rating!)

For instance, to get across the point that Ofelia’s new dad, the Franco-fascist Capitan, is a pretty bad guy, you get to watch him smash in a hapless peasant’s face with a bottle. There goes his nose, right into the skull. Then he shoots the guy’s elderly father point blank. And then blame their deaths on everyone else once it turns out they were totally innocent. Subtle? Not especially! Brutal torture, cruel bloodshed and occasional self-applied surgical incursions were just part of the daily routine after the Spanish Civil War, and Pan captures that little slice of life in vivid detail. Nauseatingly close-up, too.

You can tell it’s not an American-made movie, though, because the gruesome stuff isn’t particularly glossy. The camera doesn’t take pornographic glee in showing extreme violence — just enough to get the point across and make you totally hate the Capitan, and drive home the unhappy reality of Ofelia’s life and the conflict that surrounds it. There’s a little Alice in Wonderland about the tale, a little bit of Narnia, but all seen through the lens of wartime reality — the Queen of Hearts in a Normandy foxhole.

The lack of a strictly happy ending is another one of those “not made in the USA” tip-offs, too. Much of the movie, especially Ofelia’s dual life, is left open to interpretation, and the narrative ends with the most jarring ambiguity of all. The final scene perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy that characterizes the entire movie: it’s brutal but beautiful, a bedtime story designed to give you bad dreams.

And, yes, to gripe about George Bush. But please, don’t let that deter you from enjoying all the hand-maiming and cheek-slicing.

17 thoughts on “Minus Bowie

  1. This probably won’t come as any surprise to you, but it seems this movie isn’t playing in Abilene. I am very unhappy. Oh, and speaking of allegories and ripping things off, that Narnia movie totally lost me when they tried to imply that the lion was like Neo or something. Real subtle.

  2. I can’t wait to see Pan’s Labyrinth: I’ve been waiting a long time for Del Toro to make a truly great movie. With this and Children of Men, 2007 is looking to be a banner year for genre films.

  3. SPOILER! (for readers who haven’t seen the film – DON’T READ AHEAD)


    Absolutely loved this film too, and easily stood out as the film of 2006 for me (hell probably even 2007!) One thing to note about the ending though is that Del Toro has stated that the ending is real and that Ofelia really was a princess, which I am actually very relieved to read. I am so very fed up with the general cliche that the protagonist was ‘imagining it and was really killed/wrong’ The only things to make you think otherwise might have been where the captain sees Ofelia but not the Faun, though I assumed that in that case as it was from the captains perspective, he just couldn’t see it. I can’t explain though how he got to see the chalk marks though.

    Overall though it was fantastic to see a director make a film without any compromises whatsoever and of course it turn out for the better (surprise surprise)

  4. Jeremy Parish: I hate you. You made me look up that Blade II review and now I am physically ill. Actually I couldn’t read the whole thing.

  5. Speaking of R ratings and Narnia, what was up with Santa Claus giving the kids WEAPONS as gifts in that movie? THE HELL, SANTA?! ITS BEEN 35 YEARS AND YOU NEVER GOT ME A GUN FOR CHRISTMAS!

  6. Also, another awesome spanish made movie (in english) is The Machinist. One of the most fucking fantastic movies I’ve seen. But do not let anyone spoil it for you by telling you the ending!

  7. You mean you haven’t seen The Devil’s Backbone? It’s not as good as Pan’s, but pretty decent, also set during the Franco regime (and take this: the pinkos are the bad guys!).
    I loved the whole movie and, real or not, I thought the ending was beautiful. Although, the chalk doors hinted that whole thing was real (how could have Ofelia escaped otherwise?).
    Also, I can’t believe you spoiled the way the peasants are killed by the captain.

  8. Yeah, I noticed the chalk thing too. But it’s nice that the movie left the truth a bit nebulous at the end and forced everyone to work for it.

    Also, the parts about the peasants wasn’t intended as a spoiler but as a warning. And it was early enough in the film that I consider it establishing information, which seems like fair game for discussion.

  9. Narnia movie totally lost me when they tried to imply that the lion was like Neo or something. Real subtle.

    Does nobody read anymore?

  10. I really wanted to see this movie. Stupid Alaska not getting stupid foreign films from stupid Mexico.

  11. Rocky Balboa was horrible. Its like the entire premise for the movie was two idiot high school students playing a terrible Genesis boxing game.

  12. Moran: I think it was an XBOX360. But yeah, Gensis, pretty close in the coolness kickass factor. Isn’t that absolutely awesome. And also people screaming ROCKY! ROCKY! Oh, man, We fucking love you Rocky.

  13. But when the guy playing smokin’ joe frazier or whatever lanky armed boxer guy started changing up his jab pattern it was really hard to know when to push the uppercut button to bypass that low punch. It was the only thing Rocky could do with those stupid short arms of his.

    Its almost as bad as realizing that the depiction of St. Nick in Narnia is so stereotypically Catholic. Its all like
    Santa Klaus: Here ya go children: nice shiny new weapons! Now you can go open up a can of whup-ass on godless heathen! Go spill some heretic blood for me!
    Children: Santa. Won’t you join us in battle?
    Santa Klaus: HELL NO! I ain’t stupid gonna risk my life like that. That’s why I gave YOU weapons.
    Police officer: why did you kids murder all these innocent people?
    Children: But. But… The talking lion told us to do it!
    Police officer: Riiiiiiiiiight. A talking lion. And I’m sure Santa Claus gave you all these sharp pointy objects to kill people with.
    Children: HOW DID YOU KNOW?
    Police officer: and this happened in magical fairy land with goat people and centaurs and happy candy cane houses
    Little girl: please, mister. We killed all the evil monsters
    Police Officer: And a good job you did too, little girl. *on radio* we need an anti-child unit down here ASAP.

  14. “I can’t wait to see Pan’s Labyrinth: I’ve been waiting a long time for Del Toro to make a truly great movie. With this and Children of Men, 2007 is looking to be a banner year for genre films.”

    Don’t forget Hot Fuzz.

  15. “Does nobody read anymore?”

    Why, is there a Matrix novelization that I don’t know about?

  16. Guillermo Del Toro’s American movies: Blade 2, Hellboy, Mimic

    Guillermo Del Toro’s Mexican movies: Pan’s Labyrinth, Devil’s Backbone, Cronos

    I see a pattern.

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