Its impressive that Guillermo Del Toro creates a movie which has two plot threads that could easily hold an entire movie to themselves. It is even more impressive that neither of these plot threads buckle under the pressure of sharing the movie or feel under-developed because of the shared space. In fact, the film works even better because the movie mixes the harsh reality with the dark fantasy.
The movie is set in Spain at the end of World War 2, with war and rebellion impacting on a mother and her daughter. The daughter, played by Ivana Baquero, is thrown into an upper-class world, with a new, ruthless army general of a Father who has little time for her and sees her as little more than an inconvenience of his new marriage. Around Baquero’s Ofelia plays out a rebellion against the oppressive Spanish army, which has huge consequences for Ofelia and becomes very personal and very tragic.
As the film starts you’d be forgiven for thinking that the “real world” parts of the movie were the weak points, as this story is the slow-burner of the two. It takes a while to establish Ofelia’s new life, the rules, consequences and stakes which she now has to navigate. Compared to the more fantastical elements (which we will get to), these moments don’t intrigue enough at first. It is only as the rebellion takes shape, revelations begin to unfold and the true, dark nature of Ofelia’s step-father, Vidal, played brilliantly by Sergi Lopez, that you are sucked into this half of the tale and forgive the long moments away from the fantasy.
Which is a credit because the fantasy elements are the stand-out by far. From first meeting the Faun and gaining her quest, Ofelia is met with dark trials she must endure to prove she is in fact a princess and return to her (better) fantasy life. Del Toro has crafted a true reputation as a visionary but he never betters himself than he does here. The world he creates is creepy but keeps its fantasy roots, from shape shifting fairies, the task inside a tree involving a disgusting frog creature through to the terrifying Pale Man. The whole Pale Man sequence alone could have been its own film and you will find yourself on the edge of your seat as the creature awakens and arises and Ofelia is left avoiding narrow death. In fact, there is a good argument for there not being enough of the fantasy elements as they feel over as quickly as they begin.
The movie gets even more interesting when the two worlds begin to clash and mix. This is not a story where the fantasy hero will come to save Ofelia from her step-father though and what you are left with is something much darker and much more depressing. It is a satisfying conclusion for the movie and both stories, which is an impressive balancing act in itself.
Overall, Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterful mix of historic drama and fantasy that keeps you engaged throughout and builds a weird and wonderful fantasy world that you can’t get enough of. In fact, as good as the balancing act is, you wish there more of the creative, fantastical designs that have made Del Toro such an iconic director.
Rating – 4.5
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