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Movie Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

Movie Review: "Pan's Labyrinth"

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Let me say that before I meander off behind an LJ-cut that Pan's Labyrinth made up for the soul-shattering awfulness that was Primeval. If you are a fan of fantasy with a darker edge who either speaks Spanish or does not mind subtitles, this movie is well worth a look.

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.
  • *averts eyes to avoid spoilers*

    Glad this one got a good review (or from what I can tell from the tone of your words outside the cut!); I want to see it even more!
    • I don't think that there are too many spoilers...but I will say, Yes! See it! It's a fantastic movie. (I gave it four Elf cookies out of four, if that's any indication. :)

      Also, welcome back! I hope that you had a nice holiday. :)
  • (no subject) - satismagic
    • I think you'll like it! :)

      We don't get movies dubbed here; at least, I've never seen any. We get subtitles, which I prefer much more. Especially in the case of PL, since Spanish is my second language (albeit rusty second language), so I only need the subtitles about half of the time, mostly because they speak so fast that my rusty ears can't tell the words! But I much prefer to hear the movie in the original actor's voices (and words not matching with the image drives me absolutely nuts!)
  • I really want to see it--it is playing inconveniently close to my house. Cannot walk and the subway is indirect. I am dying to see it, because I've studied the history of the period in detail, so am interested to see how it plays in. May be that the part where you say: "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" will make it work for me on another level--or not--could do just the opposite.
    • As far as the actual history goes, I can't say much. History is something in which I am completely hopeless; I tend to watch "BOATS" (based on a true story) historical movies just as I would watch any other (fictional) story. If you get to see it, I'd be interested to hear how you think the history worked, since you've studied it. I was a bit surprised by the amount of "reality" in it--not necessarily disappointed, just surprised--since I didn't know much about the movie aside from it being a rather dark fantasy. And not a Big Animal Movie. ;)
  • I hope the sound is good--since I know Spanish. Sometimes they screw up the sound around here in subtitled movie--boom up the music and sound effects and lower the dialogue volume! (I wish I were kidding!)
    • Oh, boo. That's annoying. Spanish is my second language--albeit, a very rusty second language--so I enjoy movies in Spanish since 1) I can understand a good deal of them and do not need the subtitles and 2) it gives me some much-needed practice! They managed the sound just fine here, which is fine by me. I don't mind subtitles, but not needing the subtitles is always better!
  • Great review! I can't wait until you do "Children of Men"! I'm really not sure which movie is better. As good as PL was, I think I'm leaning toward "CoM". That's how good that film is!

    The thing I loved best about PL was the intertwining of Ofelia's fantasy world (or fantastical real but secret world) with the stark, bleak world of Spain's civil war at the time. Details such as the "death" of one of the fairies (quite shocking to me since you don't expect that to happen to such a benign character in a child's fantasy world) I thought were quite brilliant. And the "knife-in-the-mouth" and "stitching up afterwards" scene was fabulously horrible and extremely effective in showing just how desperate things were for the poor woman (I am ashamed that I forget the character's name because I loved her) and how insane Vidal was that he could do what he did.

    OMG the spoilers I have written here! I hope that nobody comes here to comment at this late date and finds them. If so, I apologize for saying too much. I tried not to give away too much and I hope I didn't. Anyway, this movie is brilliant, but I do believe "Children of Men" is just a tad better in one way at least because it takes the harrowing nature of wartime (although in a nihilistic future) one step further (or a couple of steps further) in showing it from the PoV of a very young person directly involved in and trying to escape from such horrors. The viewer gets a real sense of what it must be like to actually be there.

    I can't wait until you comment on CoM and compare it to PL. Really.
    • You just named all of my favorite parts of the movie! The scene with the fairies was just awful...in a good, dark, scary way. But it wasn't splatter-gory; it was scary just because the idea of it was scary...if that makes any sense. :^P

      The knife in the mouth and stitching afterwards...well, you can probably imagine that I really cringed there. I was tempted not to watch, but I'm trying to get over that whole blood-phobia thing! And Mercedes...yes! I honestly think that she is one of the best female characters I've ever seen portrayed in a movie. She's brave and resourceful but wonderfully kind at the same time...but none of it unrealistically so. Or I didn't think.

      We're seeing CoM this Friday, so I will write a review right after, just for you! :) I'm so excited to see it, since you liked it more than PL and Slate magazine also chose it as the best movie of last year and the most snubbed (not Dreamgirls) by this year's Academy Awards. I've wanted to see it since I saw the first preview months ago.
      • I feel bad for saying I thought it was better than PL because I truly loved PL. But honestly, I can't wait for you to see it. And review it. And for once, I think I could get into a long commentary on it! Squeeee!
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