February 23, 2007

In the dark fairy tale world of Pan’s Labyrinth, imagination is the only way out

The question is not whether Pan’s Labyrinth is a good movie. It has already been acclaimed by hundreds of critics and thousands of viewers. It is visually beautiful, emotionally powerful, and well written and directed. The question is whether it is good enough to earn an award like the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

Pan’s Labyrinth takes place in post–Civil War Spain at a forest headquarters for Franco’s troops. A young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), travels to the outpost with her very pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to meet her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergí Lopez), who commands the fascist outpost. The cruel and masculine Vidal, however, seems to have little interest in anything other than his unborn male heir and in the ruthless crushing of resistance fighters in the surrounding countryside.

Ofelia, trapped in a world of relentless fear and cruelty, finds her only refuge in stories and her own imagination. Near the outpost she discovers the ruins of a labyrinth. There Ofelia meets a mysterious Faun (Doug Jones) who returns at intervals to lead her through a series of fantastical tests to make sure she is worthy of taking her place as princess of the underworld.

Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose previous projects have included Hellboy and Blade II, the powerful, distinctive voice of Pan’s Labyrinth lies in the blending of fairy tales with reality in the eyes of a child. The dramatic beauty and innocent hope of Ofelia’s imagination is contrasted with brutal violence and desperation in the real world, where Ofelia’s stepfather heartlessly tortures and murders, and her mother is extremely ill in her pregnancy. Not even the most brutal of creatures from Ofelia’s imagination can match up to Vidal’s monstrosity, and Ofelia becomes more and more dependent on her imagined world as the real one continues to worsen. It is not, as some of the trailers make it seem, a fairy tale suitable for children.

Excellent acting made del Toro’s rich characters as effective as they could be. Lopez is bone-chilling as Vidal, and Ivana Baquero, who plays Ofelia, is a remarkable child actress. Her portrayal is both moving and convincing, and her character carries the movie as she faces trial after trial, both real and imaginary. Also excellent is Maribel Verdú as the housekeeper, Mercedes, who is an informer for the rebels and Ofelia’s only friend.

Pan’s Labyrinth is an exceptional film not only because of its gripping plot and compelling characters, but also because it is so visually successful. The images from the real and imagined worlds that the movie is comprised of are incredibly beautiful and effective. The forest surrounding the outpost is as real and haunting as the imagined scenes are ornate and stylized.

The unique, potent voice and look of Pan’s Labyrinth make it a film more than deserving of its critical acclaim and its Academy nominations.