This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com
As the song might have it we had high hopes, apple pie in the sky hopes for Blade II helmer Guillermo Del Toro’s latest outing. After all, everyone else seems to love it, at least if you limit ‘everyone’ to the insular sphere of film critics. In retrospect, this ought to have sent alarm bells ringing rather than hopes soaring. While it’s apparent that El Laberinto del Fauno, or Pan’s Labyrinth as it’s perhaps somewhat misleadingly re-titled in translation, is not in fact all of that and a bag of potato chips, it’s not a complete washout either.
The Spanish civil war sees the ugly rise of fascism, with Franco’s nasty local representative Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez) wasting no time in showing us he is, in fact, a nasty man by rather graphically staving someone’s face in with the blunt end of a wine bottle, Not that wine bottles really have a sharp end, I suppose. Wine bottle semantics aside, it’s a shocking, effective, Gaspar Noe-ish way to set up a villain utterly at odds with the subtleties that surround what you’d have difficulties in arguing against calling a well-crafted film. Vidal and his forces are busing trying to locate and subjugate a rebel force hiding up in the remote hills.
What with all of the turmoil and war and whatnot, Vidal calls for his heavily pregnant new wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and largely unwanted step-daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) to join him in the country farmhouse the army is using as a command centre. Moving away from the grim realities of guerrilla warfare, Ofelia is followed by a freaky looking insect who turns out to be a fairy, leading her into a labyrinth where she meets a Faun, the functionally named Fauno (Doug Jones). Note: not Pan. I assume Fauno’s just a squatter.
Ofelia is informed she’s actually a reincarnation of the princess of, um, Fairysville, or somewhere similar, but before she can be readmitted into the Mushroom Kingdom, or somewhere similar, she must pass a series of tests to prove she’s still of immortal royal blood and not some diluted mortal. Meanwhile, the housekeeper at the farmhouse, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is attempting to undermine the Captain’s efforts by passing information and supplies to her rebel leader brother, aided by the local doctor. While Ofelia must steal some trinket from a extraordinarily freaky monster who looks like Soul Calibur’s Voldo, but scarier, her mother is having complications in her pregnancy.
You may be starting to feel a little dizzy by this point. I had rather assumed, based on the hype going into this, that I would be treated to an intricately woven tale where the boundaries of the fantastical adventure Ofeila is undertaking will blur delicately with the often harsh reality of the civil war strife of the real world. This isn’t the case at all, with the two occupying the same space but essentially being utterly unaware of each other’s existence as though Del Toro was trying to give us a tutorial on parallel worlds theory.
That said, I can still see why people might like it. Technically speaking it’s remarkably polished work, with a style and dark beauty that’s absent from Del Toro’s bombastic Hollywood-backed outings. Some of Ofelia’s encounters are genuinely nightmarish, and parts of the civil war drama are shockingly, nastily brutal. In essence, it’s a really good, short fairy tale and a really good, short war drama cut together to make something that, for me if seemingly no-one else matches up to something a little less that the sum of its parts.
There’s a good number of reasons to like this film, and the only reason not to stems from a vague feeling that the two strands don’t connect well enough and the subsequent detachment I felt from Ofelia, and everyone else in the film for that matter. This may be a problem limited to, well, me, and at any rate Pan’s Labyrinth is a far more affecting, well crafted and worthy film that the rest of the cinematic hairs clogging up the Christmas plughole. If it’s either this, Deck the Halls or The Santa Clause Whatever Number We’re Up To I know where my hard-earned wonga would be spent.