SFC12: Pan’s Labyrinth

Welcome back for another review on the Summer Film Challenge 2012: Apocalypse Edition. Finally getting away from the joint classics, I found some time to sit down and enjoy a film I have been greatly looking forward to since the Challenge was issued.  As some of you might know, I had the honor of working with the always fantastic Doug Jones on a TV pilot we produced last year.  Ever since meeting him, I have wanted to see a film that he is very acclaimed for, despite his own face never actually making the final film.  Friends and co-filmmakers alike have been raving about Guillermo del Toro’s dark, Spanish twist on the fairy-tale archetype and, knowing that they approved was enough to get me psyched for Pan’s Labyrinth.

First and foremost, let me clear up the trifle matter that is the misnomer.  There is no character in this film named “Pan,” as one would very reasonably come to expect, and thus confusion arises before the film even begins.  Pan is a name used to replace the Spanish word for Faun (think Mr. Tumnus of the Chronicles of Narnia).  Conflicting reports I have found attribute this confusing name change to the directors desire to not confuse American viewers, mistranslations, simple marketing goofs, and most commonly to the Greek mythological character.  Regardless of why it happened, don’t let that little oddity mislead you when you see this film.

Now let’s get at the meat of the thing!  As previously mentioned, Pan’s Labyrinth is a cinematically gorgeous and narratively distinct re-imagining of the classic fairy-tale.  Darker and with a lovely Latin American flavor, this film does a great job of capturing a balance between the horrors of the real world and the magical draw of the fantastic.  It is horrendously visceral in depicting violence, being on graphically on par with several of Tarantino’s works.  Yet I found this goriness to contribute to the unique feel of the film, enhancing the dislikability of both the antagonist and the world in which Ofelia must exist.

And let me expound upon that thought by saying that the acting is absolutely phenomenal all around. But most notably is the magnificent villain Sergi Lopez crafted for the film.  His Commander Vidal is proven to be brutish and unflinching early on in ways that cause me to genuinely believe that he is capable of great evil, much unlike the characterization for many other modern antagonists (e.g. – Red Skull in Captain America).  Yet, del Toro and Lopez also managed to work into the character a wonderful humanity in his desire for a child and a legacy.  Instead of giving him a Rumpelstiltskin-esque, creepy need for a child, I fully believe that Vidal wanted a child for it’s own sake.  This extra dimensional addition to the villain indicates the fantastic level of characterization present in del Toro’s movie.  And, of course, one can clearly see that this is the true origin story for how the certain gentleman got his scars. 🙂

Beyond the fantastic acting, the visual direction of the film is beautiful!  The cinematography is wonderfully designed to accentuate color contrasts, pitting the blues of the barracks against the greens and browns of the woods, as well as the brilliant oranges and yellows of the underworld.  On top of that, each world that Ofelia travels to on her journey has it’s own stylings which separate it – the dark browns and yellows of the frog’s lair, and the reds and greys of the Pale Man’s keep (also played by Doug Jones).  Every aspect of the frame is magnificently composed.

However, despite how much I enjoyed the performances and the stunning visual design of the film, I found myself let down by the narrative wanderings of Pan’s Labyrinth.  Until about the halfway point of the film, I could not place its setting, and found to my surprise that it is set in a Spain torn by World War II.  What truly bothers me about the film is that it sets up a rather fantastic storyline about the young Ofelia, dealing with the new and oppressive world she is brought into, and explores that wonderfully through the tropes of the fairy-tale genre.  Then, almost inexplicably, the film shifts in the second Act to focus on the lives of Mercedes (the cook and rebel informant), the Doctor, and the Commander in their tangled web of cat and mouse; all of this to the entire neglect of Ofelia’s story.  It is only in the final Act that the young girl’s story is harshly refocused on and given its proper conclusion.

Let me clarify that the story of Mercedes versus the Commander is an engaging one.  Dripping with tension and wonderfully paced, the conflict between the two is magnificently crafted.  However, while interesting and fun, it remains a departure from the true narrative.  I am very grateful for the characterization of the minor players, and for the fleshing of the story-world.  Yet, I cannot ignore the fact that the film ceases between Acts One and Three while another film sneaks in to fill the gap.  And it is for this reason that, as much as I enjoyed the movie for it’s new directions and fantastic characters, I have to score the film lower for losing track of itself.

Ultimately I do recommend the film.  It is a fantastic twist on the traditional fairy-tale and the Spanish flavorings make the film a very unique cinematic experience.  Fun, engaging, visceral and viscious, Pan’s Labyrinth is a good film that deserves all of the awards it has acquired over the years. However, it does have at least one rather large story-telling failing which one cannot (and should not) ignore.  And so I recommend it both for the interesting, unique experience it offers, as well as for an excellent aid in narrative pedagogy.

Final Rating:  7//10

There you go!  I am sure that my friends who consider this “the GREATEST THING EVER” will have plenty to say about my review and I encourage and anticipate that wonderful….dialogue later.  I would love to know what you thought of Pan’s Labyrinth so please leave me your thoughts in the comments below!  If nothing else, do me the honor of noticing the distinctly Shining-esque ending, and tell me if the lullaby Mercedes sings reminds you of the song from the end of the Disney classic, The Jungle Book. 🙂

Oh and PLEASE enjoy the SFC Podcast found below!  Ryan and I both get into it a bit as I review this film, and Ryan berates Titan A.E. :

Next time, I will be turning from del Toro’s bizarre vision of 1940’s Spain and traveling the few thousand miles and full half-decade that stand between this film, and Paul Giamatti’s depression issues as he tours through Californian wine country in — Sideways.


Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

One thought on “SFC12: Pan’s Labyrinth”

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