Pan’s Labyrinth, or El Laberinto del Fauno, is a mystical and whimsical fairy tale wrapped in horrifying war story. Set in World War II in Spain, Guillermo del Toro’s story will make you fascinated and leave you with your mouth wide open.
Ophelia, amazingly played by Ivana Baquero, is a child between worlds. Her mother, Carmen Vidal, played by Ariadna Gil, and her step-father Capitán Vidal, Sergi López’s character, move her into the Spanish countryside. Capitán Vidal has been sent there to combat freedom fighters in the surrounding area. Ophelia’s mother is pregnant and is having complications.
One night Ophelia is led into the woods, by a fairy, to an ancient Labyrinth nestled there. There Ophelia finds a mystical fawn who informs her she is actually a princess. In order to return home to her kingdom she has to complete three tasks to prove herself worthy. She is given a magical book that will show her tasks but only when she is alone. Ophelia does her best to complete her tasks without getting in trouble with her family, getting caught by another adult or without being injured or killed. When she screws up, her future in her kingdom is unknown.
Ophelia’s mother grows more ill, the baby is in danger and there is a real concern that her mother will die. Mercedes, Maribel Verdú’s character, the head housekeeper gives Ophelia the only tenderness she experiences during her mother’s illness. Capitán Vidal treats Ophelia, and everyone else in his presence, with unbridled brutality. Numerous times in the film, Capitán Vidal could show mercy or kindness but instead he resorts to primitive terror.
Capitán Vidal is especially savage to the freedom fighters and is obsessed with disturbing their progress and eliminating each one of them. Mercedes is a plant for the freedom fighters and is in real danger every day. Still, she and several other characters continue their subterfuge.
Guillermo del Toro writes and directs a beautiful story that captivated me from the beginning. Ophilia’s fanciful story of magic and enchantment is incredibly captivating. Ophilia’s consternating story of a heartless step-father bent only on having a son makes you sick to your stomach but unable to turn away. The sub plots about the war only bolster your fear of the Capitán. The war drama pushes your desire for Ophilia to get away from this world and into her kingdom.
The acting in “Pan’s Labyrinth” is unmatched. Ivana Baquero should make any adult actor jealous. Her performance as the lonely, imaginative, and petrified girl is unrivaled. She captivates every audience member, in every scene. There are times you believe she has forgotten entirely that she is in the middle of a war. There are also times when you believe she forgets she is in the middle of finding her way back to her kingdom. Sergi López controlled barbarism as Capitán Vidal is enough to make you shake. López never loses control, never falters with a look of tenderness or adoration. Even when he’s trying to get people to talk, he never goes past his emotional crest. He is a master of restraint. Maribel Verdú’s performance is inspiring. Her character walks a thin line of deception and death. A lesser actor would crumble into simpering, over the shoulder, shifty eyed, peaking-around-corners weakling. Verdú instead gives a performance worthy of the mortality her character is clinging to tenuously.
The supporting cast is nothing to sneeze at either. Doug Jones, who plays both Pan and the Pale Man, avoids anything resembling cheese-ball even with characters who easily could have gone cheddar. Dr. Ferreiro, played by Álex Angulo, is rich with complexities and surprising depth of character.
Ariadna Gil, is the only performance in which I was not impressed. It isn’t that she was awful, but simply average. Her performance set against the backdrop of such outstanding performances looks shallow and uninteresting. It was like eating Ghirardelli’s dark chocolate and then someone slipping in a square of Hershey’s. Hershey’s might be alright eating chocolate but not right after you’ve had culinary wonderment in your mouth.
Another thing to love about “Pan’s Labyrinth” is the unique visual style. The unique and haunting glow to the film leaves the audience wondering if they have slipped into another world. It does get a little distracting from time to time but generally, the glow is a brilliant addition to this film.
This film is a marvelment of cinema in every way that is important. It will leave you uplifted and haunted. It is a fairytale for grown-ups. Mostly though, it is a must see for anyone who wants to understand how great cinema is made.