Pan’s Labyrinth

The Oscar nominations will be announced soon. This means that the opening weeks of the year are going to be jam-packed with films I’m very keen on seeing. So, before the deluge, it’s time to try catch up on those stragglers that were missed out on at the close of last year.

The Citizen Kane of fantasy movies – Mark Kermode

What a tosser.

Pan’s Labyrinth, or El Laberinto del Fauno (in case you can’t work that out, it’s literally “The Labyrinth Of The Fawn” which makes much more sense – I surely can’t be the only one to sit through this thinking that’s not Pan, it’s just a common or garden satyr), is most recent film from Guillermo del Toro – a pretty interesting director. He seems just a home churning out (atmospheric, never dreadful) big studio tosh like Hellboy and Blade II or (interesting, never dreadful) left-field spanish-language horror movies like Cronos or The Devil’s Backbone (and, of course, we assume that the former facilitates the latter). This is very much in the second camp, if not really a ‘horror’ film at all.

Ofelia and her pregnant mother have just moved in with her new stepfather. Wary of her new parent and home, she retreats into her books of fairy tales. Then one night she is visited by a real-life honest-to-god fairy that leads her into the labyrinth in the back garden. There she meets a fawn who informs her that she’s actually the princess of the underworld and that she must complete some tasks to return her soul to it’s rightful place. All of which is set against a backdrop of Franco‘s mopping-up period following the Spanish Civil War (with the stepfather being a particularly psychotic general in the army*).

Did I say ‘psychotic’? Probably insulting to all self-respecting psychos out there. The guy is a complete and utter sadistic nutter. The whole ‘real’ stuff is brutally realised. And, really tense, you just know that we’ve got a pressure cooker with a dodgy lid here. All mud, blood and washed out blue in colour it presents a contrast to the (all mahogany browns and russet reds) fairy tale world. And, it’s proper nasty fairy tale stuff, all jewels from the bellies of exploding frogs and suchlike. The detachable-eyeballs-in-the-palms-of-his-hands beastie (trust me, it’s the best description you’re gonna get) is one of the best fantasy creations I’ve seen in quite some time (ok, with the exception of the glorious The Host, but allow me my hyperbole): Take that Peter bloody Jackson and your hairy-toed wastes-of-time.

So, a proper grown up fairy story. But, what does it all mean. You don’t dump a tale like this in the heart of the war and not be laying some seriously profound stuff on us. After wracking my brain for about an hour solidly afterwards trying to work out just what it was trying to tell me it clicked. Nothing. It’s ultimately just a bog standard fairy tale. Only difference being that the archetypal feudal step-parent is transposed to fascist general. If it looks like an analogy, walks like an analogy and smells like an analogy…maybe it’s just a story.

Maybe that’s part of the success of the film; it convinces you that there’s some thing deep and important being told to us here when there isn’t really. Does that qualify as an achievement in itself? Probably. Either way, the film is beautifully made and acted. Engrossing from start to finish. Ultimately, highly enjoyable. Is that enough? Trust me, these days that’s not just acceptable, it’s a bloody miracle.

So, what of the Welles comparison? Of course the key to the quote is the qualifier “of fantasy movies”. Big fish, little pond. A bit like being called the Elvis of dubstep.

*Have I ever told you about my relative that went to Spain to fight in the civil war…on the side of the fascists…?

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Written by Tony Kiernan

17 January 2007 at 11:20 pm

Posted in Film

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