A decidedly outre expression of childhood trauma, Pan’s Labyrinth is a wartime fantasy from the deranged, consequence-ridden non-American realm of classical fables filtered through the oblong mind of one of modern cinema’s great dreamers. A bifurcated (unnecessarily, I might add) tale of adult conflict and childhood coping set against the Spanish front during WWII (when Franco’s repressive government was fighting ragged rebels), the most poignant gestures of director Guillermo del Toro’s vision are his most voluptuous and baroquely nightmarish.
Which is both a font of wonder and a depressing reminder of clarified conventionalism for a film that struggles to saunter over the hump into the realm of genuine formal invention to match its undeniable visual resplendence. We’ll get to the film’s dust-under-the-rug storytelling later, but first the good: one can’t sidestep the film’s initial impression as a showpiece for liberated filmmaking minds in harmony with judicious eyes and meticulous hands. Not only del Toro and his famed notebook of illustrations, mind you; the film’s production credits are a smorgasbord of overflowing filmmaking vitality.
Running down the list of virtuoso contributions is such an undertaking that it nearly threatens just copy-pasting the credits. Guillermo Navarro’s alternately hallowed and horrifying cinematography, a tapestry of golden wishfulness and baleful, chiaroscuro hellishness. Eugenio Caballero’s wondrous yet vividly tactile art direction. Pilar Revuelta’s unclassifiable set design, a marriage of cemetery dirge and childlike bewilderment. David Marti and Montse Ribe’s awestruck, illusory yet vigorously present, touchable makeup. Doug Jones, easily the best on-screen performer in the film, embodying two of del Toro’s most startling creations, the hideous Pale Man and the malevolent yet avuncular titular Faun, with a vociferous, flesh-crawling evocation of primordial need and Machiavellian desire, respectively.
All of whom are in service of a story about Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a child who escapes to a possibly fictive, cannily ambiguous dream realm to hide from the torturous reality of her stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a brutish enforcer for Franco’s dictatorial regime. The magnetism of the production credentials, however, don’t always successfully obfuscate the tentative storyteller at the heart of the picture, del Toro, whose ostensibly visionary creations are frankly better served in a more loose-limbed, nimble tale (unpopular opinion though it may be, del Toro’s follow-up – the raffish, criminally underrated fantasia Hellboy 2 – bests it on all counts). The grave regions of torment and desecration bear witness to del Toro’s provisional grasp of his own themes (he’s at his best when throwing structure and theme out the window altogether and basking in the episodic, screw-loose nature of his boyish wonderment).
Take the film’s inhospitable attempts to mirror Ofelia’s hushed, surreptitious escapades with the more calamitous “real world” story around them. Something is undeniably brewing in del Toro’s mind, possibly the way that the blunt force of wartime suffocation can take on the aura of a fairy tale in its alien qualities. Or maybe a commentary on a regime that blankly sequesters morality into either-or, black-and-white wholes that conform to the the realm of fable more than reality. But del Toro is content to use luster to wash away the screenplay resting on its laurels, a sleight of hand trick from a magician that buckles under the screenplay’s oddly programmatic, simplistic Jekyll and Hyde routine of cutting between the two stories with such forced regularity that the whole affair becomes a sight more mechanical than the lived-in mise en scene requires. The fluidity of del Toro’s visuals contract the disease of his stuffy, rigid writing.
When it was released, progenitors for the film were obvious, and critics weren’t reticent about dousing reviews in sugarplum visions of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and, far more tenuously, Luis Buñuel. The Carroll connection couldn’t have been unintended on del Toro’s part, for he always traffics in that brand of maddened childlike glee, but one assumes (hopes) his mind and notebook embody Carroll’s anarchic vision more than his films do. The nature of del Toro’s writing remains fundamentally opposed to the maniacal, askew psychosis of Alice – which embodies a certain vision of undoctored childhood mania and escapism far more evocatively than del Toro’s film, which conforms far more heavily to the screenplay logic of narrative cinema.
Even more bemusing are the Buñuel comparisons, which seem rooted in little more than Buñuel’s success in Mexico back in the day (even though he was Spanish by nationality, and produced most of his masterpieces hop-scotching over Europe for funding, but we can’t expect white people to actually acknowledge that Spanish-speaking countries aren’t a homogeneous solution, can we?). The comparison is depressingly skin-deep, with Buñuel’s cavernously embedded, fluxional reinterpretation of cinematic narrative and patently enticing understanding of visual pandemonium a far cry from del Toro’s mostly normative habits as a director and writer. Buñuel and Carroll descended their particular brands of bedlam into the most unvisited crevices of their art, but del Toro is spelunking mostly around the surface. As it is, Buñuel and Carroll are as much phantoms haunting Pan’s Labyrinth with reminders of failed potential as they are shoulders the film ably stands on. Superficial nods aside, the true reincarnation of these long-dead artists remains missing in action.
For many, along with the same year’s similarly maleficent fantasy Children of Men from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, Pan’s Labyrinth was something of a culmination of a decade of partially hidden but not unvoiced Mexican cinema brewing as it conspired to shock the world. Children of Men remains perhaps the apotheosis of camerawork-as-experience from the ‘00s (I’ll take it over Gravity any day of the week), but Pan’s Labyrinth is more notable for its vigor than its reorganization of the barest rules of cinema. del Toro, like Cuaron, is a formidable artist, but, unlike Cuaron, one wonders if the art he is best suited for is a less temporal medium like painting or sculpture. He remains a sterling director of scenes and sequences in search of a more harmonious delivery mechanism for his ideas, and lively though this film’s best sequences may be, Pan’s Labyrinth is not that venue.