Pan’s Labyrinth features Ivana Baquero as Ofelia, a young girl living in post-Civil War Spain. And when Ofelia’s mother remarries a military officer, the two travel to the countryside where her new stepfather is currently assigned to hunt down a group of rebels. But as her new stepfather’s violent crusade tears their family apart, Ofelia escapes deeper and deeper into a strange fantasy world that might be a whole lot more real than it seems.
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth arguably remains his finest work. Several years before Tim Burton would share his own dark, twisted wonderland, del Toro presents a hauntingly beautiful fairy tale of a young girl escaping the woes of her life by way of an oddly colored fantasy world. But whereas Lewis Carrol’s classic story is a whimsical look at logic and the lack thereof, del Toro’s is a somber, introspective look at how a young girl copes with the chaos and death that surrounds her.
Every aspect of this movie oozes with del Toro’s trademark style. The visuals are dark, moody, and haunting, with brief moments of warmth and color. The design of the world and its various creatures are organic yet also unnatural, beautiful yet somehow wicked. It’s all pulled out from something not quite a dream, not quite a nightmare.
And the story is much the same way, with it never clear one way or the other if Ofelia’s fantasy is intended to be taken as a frightened child’s escape or something more real. And this isn’t just some half-hearted attempt at ambiguity. If anything, Pan’s Labyrinth might be one of the best examples of ambiguity in all of cinema. The film is designed from top to bottom to not focus on whether or not this fantasy might be real. Instead, everything is overtly surreal–the costumes, the sets, the props. Ofelia is already living in a fantasy world and living out a fairy tale before she ever sees anything fantastical. But every care in the world went into ensuring that in spite of how much we’re aware of this is all a movie, we’ll still be desperately wishing and hoping that this little girl might secretly be a princess who gets her happily ever after. It’s beautiful, classic storytelling executed flawlessly.
And this gorgeous, intoxicating production is only accentuated further by the performances of its cast. It’s well-documented how challenging it can be to work with child actors. And it’s not hard to see why the acting talent of most actors that young will struggle with the demands of more serious material. Acting is a craft that takes years and years of experience to truly come close to mastering, after all.
Yet Ivana Baquero handles the transition from tortured young girl to wide-eyed, hopeful child with grace. She’s a young girl caught in a nightmare she can’t wake up from. She charms the camera effortlessly, vulnerable yet strong. She’s the hero of her own story, but not some Disney-like princess who can never truly be hurt or stopped.
And while this might come across like some purple prose way of gushing about Baquero’s performance, it’s a sincere opinion on the matter. Baquero is in the unfair position to carry the full weight of the movie’s emotionally-draining story on her young shoulders. And that gamble could have easily failed if she weren’t wholly up to the task. Pan’s Labyrinth would not be the cinematic masterpiece that it is if not for Baquero’s ability to navigate the emotional roller coaster the role takes her through. The highs are highs, the lows are low. And it all twists and turns on a dime. It’s a fascinating story to watch unfold clear through to the end. But that performance is what makes ties it all together.
As for the rest of the cast…
Well, at this point it almost goes without saying that Doug Jones brings an unearthly charm to his portrayals of both the mysterious Faun and the nightmarish Pale Man.
And Sergi Lopez makes for the perfect troubled villain in his role as Ofelia’s stepfather, Vidal. The character is a man of contradiction. He’s a cruel, violent man to his enemies and often cold and distant to those closest to him. But Vidal infuses this seemingly heartless man with a soul. He’s not just some ruthless killer who deserves swift, divine justice. This isn’t a man who doesn’t understand love and affection. Instead, Lopez presents Vidal as a man who been consumed by his duties, too hardened and calloused to feel such vulnerable emotions.
The only remotely reasonable issue someone might have with the film is that it’s best enjoyed in its native Spanish, thus requiring a grasp of that language or the use of subtitles. But this isn’t just one of del Toro’s best films, it’s also one of the most beautiful movies period. And because this, just a few moments taking in the sights and sounds of what the film has to offer should be more than enough to convince even the most stubborn rejector of all things subtitled to CHILL with Pan’s Labyrinth.