by RISHI AGRAWAL
Daydreaming happens, whether we want it to or not. As we drift through the drudgery of our lives, bored at work or school, we think how our lives can be better. Fantasy is an important element in that daydreaming, whether we dream of winning the lottery or being able to walk through walls. I am no psychologist, but I will even argue that fantasy is healthy, as long as it is not taken to extremes. It gives us an alternate reality to latch onto, an escape from the mundane.
What happens if our reality is so warped, so unpleasant that our world threatens to collapse in on itself? Perhaps then it is appropriate to go to extremes, and perhaps even accept the fantasy world instead of the real world. This is the very dilemma that afflicts Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl who discovers Pan’s Labyrinth. She must choose whether to embrace the fairy tale that she finds herself thrust into or reject it and face the reality of Spain in 1944, shortly after Franco’s rise to power.
Ofelia’s fairy tale world is a mysterious one, fraught with peril at every turn. She finds this world when a bug-like fairy leads her through a labyrinth of hedges. She finds her eventual guide on her journey: a faun (Doug Jones), who is somehow simultaneously avuncular and sinister. (In terms of fauns, Pan is the polar opposite of Mr. Tumnus from The Chronicles of Narnia.) This fairy tale world is strange, but Ofelia, who grew up reading fairy tales, faces it with relish. Some of the trials the Ofelia must overcome include a giant toad as well as a strange creature that eats children and has eyeballs in its palms.
As scary as the denizens of the fairy tale world are, the real world is much more frightening. Ofelia’s pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has married a cruel officer in Franco’s army (Sergi Lopez), who cares more for his unborn son than Carmen or Ofelia. Carmen takes ill, threatening the lives of both mother and child. Meanwhile, revolutionaries patrol the woods, fighting against Franco’s Fascist regime, and the rural outpost where the story takes place, is a prime target.
Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy) is truly a visionary, as he blends reality and fantasy into a seamless world. In many ways, this reminds me of the early Peter Jackson film, Heavenly Creatures, where two young girls in New Zealand conspire to murder their parents while living in a fantasy world. Jackson, however, makes a more deliberate separation between reality and fantasy, whereas del Toro never precisely tells us where the line between worlds is drawn.
The film is visually stunning, but it never gets in the way of the story. The film, for the most part, follows Ofelia, and the landscapes are dark, overwhelming and creepy: a reflection of Ofelia’s psyche. No matter what strange invention del Toro throws at us, it feels right at home in 1940s Spain, and even makes sense, to some degree.
Unfortunately, the fantasy elements of the film are so well-done: both visually and thematically that I wish there were more of them. I had expected this film to be as billed, primarily a fairy tale set in a fantasy world. However, the majority of the movie is about Ofelia’s real life and the revolutionaries. The parts of the film set in reality are well done, and nearly as intriguing as the imaginative elements, but they still fall short. I think del Toro could have made a very good film simply about Spanish history, but the epic aspects start to push the film towards greatness. You could argue that I am simply a victim of the marketing campaign for Pan’s Labyrinth, that I am simply disappointed because the film was not what I expected, but I truly feel the main story is not as compelling as the fairy tale. If the film had concentrated on the fantastical elements, or even achieved a balance, we could have had a film for the ages. Instead, we still have one of the better movies of the year, but something that still falls just short of where it could be.
3 1/2 stars