13) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Written & Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu & Doug Jones
Once upon a time in Guadalajara, there lived a young boy named Guillermo. The boy was obsessed with all the things children obsess over: insects and mechanics, monsters and generals, war and fantasy. But the boy never grew up. When the time came to put away childish things, the boy clung to his comic books and stories. Fuelled by imagination, he built his dreams (and nightmares) into reality. He found work as a movie make-up artist, becoming a student of the dying art of practical effects. And when he graduated into the director’s chair, he poured his obsessions into his work.
Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s second stab at combining supernatural elements with the cruel reality of the Spanish Civil War. His first effort, 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, is a fine film, but despite strong reviews it failed to find an audience. Before Pan’s the director was best known for his comic book movies, as the man behind the camera on Hellboy and Blade II. Currently responsible for bringing JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen, his work still trends towards his childish passions, but don’t let the resume fool you. Del Toro is a mature visionary, and his journey into the Labyrinth was no fluke success.
Pan’s tells the story of Ofelia (Baquero), a ten-year-old girl who is forced to move to a military camp in the hills of Spain, where Franco’s fascist regime is duking it out with the Maquis rebels. Her mother is nearing the end of a difficult pregnancy, and her wicked stepfather wants to keep her close until the baby is born. Heralded as a fairy tale for adults, the film is that, to a degree. But it’s not the movie that that label seems to imply, either. It is in part a straight-forward fantasy story with a simple moral, very much fitting of the fairy tale tag. But it’s also a visual essay on the necessity of fantasy and escapism in the face of the unflinching brutality of war. Oh yes, this is a very adult story, full of gruesome and gory violence.
Much of that darkness is provided by Captain Vidal (Lopez), leader of the fascist outpost and Ofelia’s new stepfather. Vidal is a terrible man prone to doing terrible things, and Ofelia hates him as much as any strong-minded stepdaughter should. There is an early scene in the film where, midway through an interrogation, Vidal bludgeons a man to death with the blunt end of a glass bottle. Considering the tone of the film to that point, it’s an extremely shocking moment that lets us know what we’re in for the rest of the way.
Del Toro was discouraged from casting Lopez in the role, as producers felt the comedic actor wouldn’t be able to deliver a convincing performance. Thankfully, he didn’t listen. Lopez is outstanding as Vidal, his Captain a fierce force of evil comparable to cinema’s best villains. He’s chilling and unpredictable, and in many ways his performance is the film’s driving strength. We need to feel the danger of Ofelia’s day-to-day life to both buy in to her make believe world and to see how reality is shaping her fantasy. Vidal provides that, and indeed, aspects of the Captain shine through in both of the Doug Jones characters, the Pale Man and the Faun.
And speaking of Doug Jones, what a technical accomplishment his characters are. Jones has been the faceless saviour of many a picture, as he is known for literally disappearing into his characters — behind mountains of prosthetic make-up. You might know him as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies (though David Hyde Pierce dubbed his lines in the original), or as the Silver Surfer in the second Fantastic Four flick (where his voice was replaced by Laurence Fishburne). Rarely is he recognizable, and rarer still does he actually get to deliver his own dialogue, but del Toro is hell-bent on keeping the man employed. He played three characters in the Hellboy sequel, disguised by make-up and prosthetics each time — his long, bony fingers the giveaway to his true identity. It’s a safe bet he will play numerous characters in del Toro’s The Hobbit, as well — if they’re even half as convincing as the five characters he’s played in their last two collaborations, we should be so lucky.
Jones spent hours upon hours sitting in make-up having his costume applied, and he used that time to learn Spanish so he could deliver his lines (again his readings were replaced in post-production). Both of his characters are the movie’s most memorable visuals: one dark and mysterious, the other bright and horrific. These creatures feel alive on-screen, and much of that is because of the man in the suit. Special kudos for the Pale Man, as Jones could barely see out the slits of his costume.
The movie does make use of a few computer-generated effects, but it’s the practical make-up and gorgeous production design that give it its magic. My main worry with the film before seeing it was that I would be too distracted by having to read subtitles to be able to fully absorb the lush visuals, but that never proved to be a problem. Many of the movie’s most dynamic sequences are devoid of dialogue, and I stop noticing that I’m reading after a while anyway. Del Toro translated the script himself so the subtitles would be as punchy and effective as possible, and I think it adds to the immersion.
While it is a strong film in every sense, it might yet be remembered as the film that established Guillermo del Toro as more than a geeky horror nut, and convinced studios to give him more freedom to put his dreams on film. Hellboy II was a step in that direction, and only good things can come from this man adapting Tolkien. I already know that The Hobbit will be visually stunning.
With imaginative creatures, a memorably vicious villain and intelligent commentary on the allure of fiction, Pan’s Labyrinth is undoubtedly a great film, and easily one of the best and most memorable movies of the decade.