Movie Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"
Set during the Spanish Civil War, young Ofelia finds herself sent off with her pregnant mother to live with her stepfather, the cruel Capitán Vidal, in rural Spain. Ofelia discovers or creates for herself a fantasy realm based on fairy tales where she is a long-departed princess of a utopian underworld. In order to claim her crown, she must complete three tasks of increasing difficulty that challenge her physically, mentally, and morally. Her challenges in the fantasy realm run paralell with Spain's struggles against their fascist repressors and Ofelia's real-life conflicts with her stepfather. This movie shows the epitome of escapism...or does it? Fantasy and reality entwine beautifully to where I'm not quite sure how it ended, happily or sadly.
If you find yourself thinking that it sounds like the idyllic sort of movie a la The Chronicles of Narnia, perfect for packing the whole family into the old station wagon for an outing...don't. The movie is very dark and while tastefully gruesome (I'll explain myself on this oxymoron in a moment) it is nonetheless gruesome and uses some of the most effective horror elements I've ever seen in a movie. Trust the rating on this one and leave the kiddies home.
Pan's Labyrinth as a concept is not particularly novel. The strength of this movie lies in its presentation of an old idea: an ordinary girl is something extraordinary and magical, called to complete a magical quest to realize her destiny. The movie is beautiful, frightening, and surreal...and sometimes, not surreal enough, when the audience is drawn to the harsh history that forms the core of this movie.
I would not classify Pan's Labyrinth as a horror movie, but it uses elements of the genre better than any horror movie that I have seen in a long while. This is where tasteful gruesomeness comes in: In an age where each subsequent movie seems out to be more gruesome and shocking than its predecessor, PL gets what these movies miss. The darkest corners are often in the imagination of each viewer. Where so many horror movies fail these days, I think, is in assuming that their worst fears are our worst fears. Their explicitness is their failing. We leave each gimmick feeling, "I've survived. That wasn't so bad." And so we have a string of Hostel-type movies, each "worse" than the last (in more than one way *ahem*) and each desensitizing the audience a degree more rather than leaving that audience to walk out of the theatre, thinking on that scene, the moment before it cut away, and imagining what happened after. Imagining it with their worst fears rather than the screenwriter's; playing it over and over again and wondering how it might have happened, rather than how it did happen.
Also, a bit more frivolously, PL has what Bobby and I agree might be the creepiest movie monster ever. IMDB has pictures, but they don't quite do it justice, so I'll leave it as a surprise. And this is one of the most explicitly graphic scenes, though it does what it must without making a farce of itself. No spattering gore, no hellish screams...but awful and haunting nonetheless.
As I said, I am still not really sure how this movie ended. Was the fairy tale real or imagined? I think that either option is equally viable. Bobby and Jenni (digdigil) thought that it was in Ofelia's imagination; Jenni's sister and I both prefer to believe that it was real. Does the movie speak more about the existence of magic or the power of escapism?
Either way, it is a wonderful movie, the best I've seen in a long while, and I unhesitatingly give it all four E.L. Fudge "Elves Exist" cookies out of four.