TORONTO: "Pan's Labyrinth" Is Brutal, Beautiful Fantasy

by | September 9, 2006 | Comments

A magic realist fairy tale set in Fascist Spain, "Pan’s Labyrinth" is endlessly imaginative, an embarrassment of visual riches. Screened at the Toronto Film Festival; read on for the full review!

This awe-inspiring mix of fantasy, horror and drama achieves something rare: it’s equally resonant visually and emotionally, and its director, Guillermo del Toro, has pulled out all the stops without compromise. Its sheer audacity is thrilling to behold.

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl with a love of fantastic stories, and her pregnant mother have just arrived at a military outpost in rural Spain. Ofelia’s stepfather (Sergio Garcia) is in charge, and is tasked with crushing the anti-fascist insurgency. Ofelia is immediately wary of the captain, and wanders into a labyrinth. There she meets a faun, who tells her she’s a princess, and assigns her a set of tasks that will bring this spirit world out of the darkness. She envelops herself in this fantasy world, while the battle between the fascists and the rebels, and the worsening condition of her mother hit closer to home.

The film contains many remarkable effects (a giant insect that becomes a fairy, a thin, eyeless child killer, a giant toad that bursts from its insides), and but they look wonderfully organic; this isn’t a soulless CGI-fest. And del Toro doesn’t give the short shrift to the real world. The brutality of the Spanish army and the hopes and doubts of the rebels and their accomplices are made chillingly real. Garcia is efficiently nasty, and Maribel Verdú, who cares for Ofelia and assists the rebels while working for the captain, has a face that conveys concern and resolve.

"Pan’s Labyrinth" is similar in essence (if not tone) to Victor Erice’s masterpiece "Spirit of the Beehive," another tale of a sad, wise child finding solace in fantasy (in that one, it was Frankenstein’s monster) during the Franco era. At other times, the influence of "Alice in Wonderland" is unmistakable. It’s certainly too dark and violent for children. But this is a singular work, sure to be a favorite of dreamers and cult movie fanatics for years to come.

"Pan’s Labyrinth" currently stands at 100 percent on the Tomatometer.

For our complete coverage of the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, check out our Tomatoes in Toronto Feature!