A war drama about a child's struggle to hang onto her innocence, "Pan's Labyrinth" has been misrepresented in its advertising campaign as some sort of mind-blowing fantasy-horror epicthink 1986's "Labyrinth," only R-rated and in Spanish with English subtitles. The truth is, these flights of fancy take up maybe one-fourth of the two-hour running time, are mostly superfluous to the real-world story at hand, and have nearly all been given away in the trailers. Were director Guillermo del Toro (2004's "Hellboy
") to have embraced the fairy tale elements and given them more attention and scope, the picture would have been a visual and technical triumph. By concentrating on his characters and their tough circumstances in a violent post-Civil War Spain, del Toro's aims are thematically loftier in intent but not always as successful as he thinks.
In 1944, shortly after the end of the war, young daydreamer Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her matter-of-fact pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) move to the countryside to live with her new husband, the stern and cold-blooded Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Ofelia makes it known that she doesn't want to stay therewith bloody uprisings painting the small village red, it surely isn't a place for a childbut finds solace in the ancient maze in the woods behind their property. It is here that Ofelia meets Pan (Doug Jones), an otherworldly faun who tells her she is a long lost princess who may reclaim her title if she completes three difficult tasks. Ofelia agrees, but is soon facing life-threatening situations that unmistakably mirror the true-to-life horrors of strife and totalitarianism going on around her.
As a metaphorical tale about one girl's refusal to be stripped of her imagination and childlike wonder in an adult world, "Pan's Labyrinth" is predictable but often compelling. The film has received overwhelming accolades and universal adoration that it doesn't come close to living up toit is (1) a victim of its own hype, and (2) nothing like what it's being marketed asbut there is an audience involvement writer-director Guillermo del Toro manages to work up all the same. To be sure, the plot and where it is headed is easily predicted in the first fifteen minutes, and it takes some time to get goingthe first hour is a slow, fantastical-skewing setup to the harsher, more persuasive realities of the second. Yet, the picture gradually transforms into a horrific, high-stakes thriller, and by the climax has become unexpectedly intense as Ofelia and strong-willed housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) try to save Ofelia's newborn brother and escape the tyrannical clutches of Captain Vidal. The violence that Vidal wreaks is blunt, straightforward and graphic, all by himself cementing that "Pan's Labyrinth" is not a children's movie. Sergi Lopez is so spiteful and cutthroat as Vidal that one can't help but hate him with a passion; his performance might rank right behind John Jarratt in 2005's "Wolf Creek
" as the best screen villain in the last few years.
Ivana Baquero is sufficient as heroine Ofelia, but by no means a standout. As child actors go, she sells the role, but the underwritten part curiously stands at an emotional distance from the viewer. Likewise, until the third act she is ingrained in her own mystical world to the point where she hardly seems to be existing in the same one as the rest of the characters. The shifts in tone and setting, from fantasy to ultra-real, were juggled with far more eloquence and cohesion in 1988's criminally overlooked "Paperhouse," a coming-of-age gem in which a girl on the verge of puberty escapes her troubles by disappearing into her own drawings. In "Pan's Labyrinth," Ofelia accepts that she is a princess too easily when Pan tells her, and it is never explained why she would risk her life to complete the tasks she is given when little is being offered in return.
"Pan's Labyrinth" isn't scary enough to be labeled a horror moviethe closest it comes is in a chase between Ofelia and the monstrous Pale Man, who looks like an extra from the set of 2006's "Silent Hill
." The fairy tale leanings are existent but played as afterthoughts next to the stark barbarism Ofelia must confront when her mother resists leaving her husband and then grows ill. The gorgeously pronounced visual effects and production design work are cause for some attractively surrealistic imagery, but they are at the service of a story that could have done without them and spared the film from its strained try to suck in genre enthusiasts. The oomph of the movie is not in what lies beyond the labyrinth, anyway, but in the unforgiving and unfair lot in life Ofelia has found for herself and tries to make different. When "Pan's Labyrinth" concentrates on this, it is a film of disturbing authenticity. When it wanders into the realm of so-called castles in the sky, it lacks the imaginative commitment to break free from its uneven ambitions.