Pan’s Labyrinth
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WINNER: Art Direction (Eugenio Caballero & Pilar Revuelta)

Theatrical Release Date: 10/11/2006 (Spain), 12/29/2006 (USA)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Maribel Verdú, Sergi López

“El Laberinto del Fauno”, or “Pan’s Labyrinth” to the gringos, is not necessarily what you expect based on the previews.

It is the story of a young girl named Ofelia (Baquero) who is forced to move into her stepfather’s home with her mother (Gil). Her stepfather (Lopez) is a ruthless Army captain trying to quash the resistance movement in the turbulent post-civil war world of Spain in 1944.

Upon arrival, Ofelia meets a fairy and discovers that she is the daughter of the King of the Underworld. She is asked to complete three tasks to prove herself to Pan (Jones), the faun that serves as her guide. These tasks are at odds with the plans of her mother, who is in the midst of a very difficult pregnancy, and the Captain, whose struggle with the rebels begins to escalate.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a film that rides the line between fantasy and realism, and does so quite well. Ofelia is torn between the “real” world and the fantasy situation she has found herself in. Del Toro does a good job balancing the two worlds, creating (and completing) rich storylines that run parallel with each other. We mostly follow Ofelia back and forth between the two, but there are some elements of the resistance storyline that are self-contained and don’t involve her.

For a number of reasons, the film is very effective. The art direction, cinematography, costuming, and visual effects all work together seamlessly to create two separate worlds. The worlds are often at odds with each other, but the old Spanish mill has a dark, shadowy feel that meshes very well with the dreamlike world inhabited by Pan. This compatibility allows Ofelia to move back and forth without pulling the audience out of the movie.

But none of the great visuals would work without the impressive pool of actors. All of the adult actors are seasoned veterans in their home countries. Lopez is chilling as the Captain, and Gil is both graceful and tragic in her depiction of a woman struggling to protect her family in an impossible situation.

Jones is creepy beyond belief as the Pale Man (whose role is frustratingly brief), and his performance as Pan is tightly controlled- his true motives are difficult to read. Verdú is sublime as Mercedes, an assistant of the Captain that acts in many ways as a mother figure to Ofelia as her mother’s condition worsens.

For a relative newcomer, Baquero’s nuanced performance is superb. When she makes a poor choice (as she does on occasion in the film), I found myself being more judgmental than I would be of other kids, because she carries herself like a much older person.

Ultimately, we are left with almost as many questions as answers. The film never really addresses the question of what is real and what is fiction. What becomes clear quickly is that reality is easily as harsh as fantasy, and our wildest imaginations would be hard pressed to create monsters more evil than those we see on the news everyday.

The creatures Ofelia faces in her adventures may be scary, but her greatest challenge comes when she needs to deal with her own troubled world.

Pan’s moves at a deliberate pace and it is subtitled. In my opinion, it was also misrepresented by the previews- with a large emphasis on the Spanish Civil War, it is not really a fantasy film, and definitely isn’t a horror film.

These factors might not make it a movie for everyone. But it is an impressive effort, and reminds us of del Toro’s place among the great Mexican directors. I give this one a 4 out of 5, and recommend it to anyone that appreciates good storytelling and still believes in fairies … even just a little bit.