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.