Friday, October 31, 2008

Review - Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth
2007 Hugo Winner for Best Long Form Dramatic Presentation

My run on NaNoWriMo starts in a few hours but there's time enough to get in one more dramatic presentation review.

If the run away success of The Lord of the Rings wasn't enough to convince you that the fantasy genre has taken deep root in popular culture there's always Pan's Labyrinth as an example. You might dismiss The Lord of the Rings as popular fair but a foreign language film featuring an overlap of fairy tales and the Spanish Civil War? It was wildly popular with film critics and was heavily favored to win multiple academy awards (it did win for cinematography) and no one blinked. No one said, "Hang on, we can't like this; there's strange creatures in it!"

After her father's death a young girl's mother marries a powerful and brutal captain of Spain's fascist army. Her mother is pregnant with his child and will give birth soon so the captain has them both come to a remote mill where he is rounding up rebels. There the girl finds the ruins of an old maze and at its center is a satyr who thinks she is a lost princess. Before she can leave, though, the girl must pass three tests...

The fairy tale elements that are infused with the story didn't thrill me. There was nothing particularly wrong with them, they were just fairly traditional and well worn. What really captivated me was the interaction between the cast. Sergi López in particular was great as the Spanish captain who is obsessed with continuing his lineage. He is convincingly cruel; possibly the most vile screen villain I've seen in a while. Ivana Baquero as the young girl does a respectable job there it seems more typical of the decent child actor who simply succeeds in not being annoying rather than a genuinely great performance.

The cast wouldn't have been able to do a thing without the wonderful script which flips back and forth between surreal fairy tale and terrifying war. There's monsters on both sides of the line but even the most disturbing of the fantastic ones somehow don't seem as threatening as human beings.

Then there's the art design and cinematography. I have to confess that I find Guillermo del Toro's films to be very theatrical; that is to say they look like they were designed to be performed on a stage rather than put on a movie screen. His love of polystyrene sets, for example, makes everything feel staged. This is not a bad thing, in fact I'd say it was very effective in Pan's Labyrinth with the divide between the fantastic and the mundane is part of the point. On the other hand I'm not sure how well it will play out in del Toro's upcoming The Hobbit.

One thing that threw me was how violent the film was. I'm not squeemish about violence (hey, just look at the other movies I've covered without mentioning it) but Pan's Labyrinth is so close to being an exceptional movie that an entire family could enjoy that it's a shame that there are several extremely violence sequences. The violence wasn't even really necessary for the film since the same concepts could have been conveyed more subtly.

I get the impression that del Toro wanted to leave the reality of the mystical occurrences in doubt but there's too many times that someone other than the girl sees the results of something that could not occur without the fantasy being true. Since this is the case I was left wondering why he chose to present it as ambiguous at other points in the film. The ending in particular is problematic there since a confirmation of the magical divide theme could have fit in nicely but it goes back to pretending there is ambiguity.

Even with those minor complaints, however, I have to say I greatly enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth. I wouldn't call it ground breaking for fantasy fans but it is an exceptionally well done version of some classic themes.