Pan’s Labyrinth

January 18th, 2007 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Sunstroke, free alcohol and endless darkened movie theatres must exacerbate what we’d call normal human behaviour on those at the Cannes Film Festival.

If we love a movie, we’ll walk out saying excitedly to our friend or partner ‘what about the bit when…’ If the buyers, critics and stars at Cannes love a movie, stories like ’15 minutes of applause’ or ‘a 23 minute standing ovation’ enter the lore surrounding a film.

Such over-reactionary zeal appears to seal the fate of many movies. Guillermo del Toro’s fascism parable Pan’s Labyrinth received one of the fabled overlong standing ovations, and critical acclaim has been deafening.

It’s a story of parallel worlds; one where Franco’s fascist army tighten their grip around Spain, and the other where a young girl escapes the horrors of the real world into a fantasy that — as the ending reveals — may or not be of her own making.

When Ofelia (Baquero) moves with her mother to the rural military base of her new stepfather — a cruel officer in the fascist army — life looks bleak. When she follows a shape-shifting fairy through an old stone gate in the forest nearby, she comes across a fantasyland where a horned, behoofed Faun tells her of her destiny to take her place aside the throne of her real father. It seems Ofelia’s a princess, lost in the human world, having forgotten her heritage. The completion of three tasks will restore her to her throne, but the world of quests, fauns and fairies isn’t the only one she has to circumnavigate.

The other is the world of her evil stepfather, with his dogged determination to defeat the rebels lurking in the woods and the subterfuge and intrigue surrounding his subordinates and enemies.

You couldn’t find two more different stories, and that’s the problem with Pan’s Labyrinth. While the connection between the rea land fantasy worlds might be obvious to Del Toro (and indeed the rest of us with a little thought), one’s a violent war drama, the other a live-action Alice in Wonderland ? both good premises for movies, but very hard to swallow in the same film. It’s like inter-cutting Hostel with Over the Hedge.

The result is that each tale feels half full. The Pale Man — a grisly creature with a bloody mouth and eyes in his hands — appears because Ofelia’s task is to remove a key from his chamber and not succumb to the temptation of eating any of the feast laid out before him.

When she (of course) does and we’re treated to a creepy chase as the Pale Man pursues her, the Faun hits the roof — taking his fairy friends and leaving. After another extended stretch in the evil stepfather’s story, the faun reappears to give Ofelia another chance — apparently having simply changed his mind. It feels little more than a cheap plot device to give the Pale Man some screen time.

And that’s Pan’s Labyrinth’s other problem. Yes the visuals are outstanding, but the creature and set design appear to be what Del Toro (and all the glowing critical comment) intends to hang the whole movie on — it’s a Goya exhibition in search of a plot.

You’ll also feel somewhat cheated when you realise the two iconic beasts you’ve seen in articles and reviews everywhere (the faun and the Pale Man) comprise almost all the otherworldly creatures on show. Being a fantasy movie, you expect a Lord of the Rings-like roll call of exotic beasts, not two of them.

Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t kid’s stuff. Battle and torture scenes abound, and Del Toro doesn’t turn the camera away from various grotesqueries. Earlier scripts made no mention of Ofelia or her adventures, so apparently the story of the fascist insurgence is the one Del Toro wanted to tell. For all the fantastical elements, the war story ironically has the most emotional heft; hinging it on a few good costumes and sets feels throwaway.

Pan’s Labyrinth looks like a classic in posters, but far too many flaws in plotting hold it far short.


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