Anyone who has studied fairy tales soon realises that, at least in their original form, they often have content we today would not consider suitable for children. Pan's Labyrinth is just such a fairy tale. The movie is at times beautiful, at times horrifying, and at yet other times it is both simultaneously. More than any film in recent years, Pan's Labyrinth captures the feel and look of the fairy tales of old.
Pan's Labyrinth is set in Spain in 1944, when Franco's regime was still active in fighting dissidents. The movie centres on Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero), a little girl who goes with her mother to live with her stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal (played by Sergi Lopez). With the repression of Franco's fascist regime taking place everywhere around her, Ofelia soon finds herself swept up in a fairy tale world (which may or may not be imaginary) in which a faun informs her that she is a princess.
On the surface the harsh reality of Franco's fascist government might seem at odds with the sometimes horrifying fairy tale world which Ofelia visits. And yet del Toro weaves the two disparate worlds together to form a seamless whole. Like any good fairy tale, it is sometimes difficult to determine what is more horrifying--the sometimes fantastic creatures Ophelia encounters (such as the cannibalistic Pale Man) or the all too commonplace evils committed by her stepfather Captain Vidal. Del Toro is so successful in blending fantasy with reality that it is impossible to tell if Ofelia's fairy tale world is imaginary or real (I lean towards the latter myself, although I can see why others might disagree).
Not only is the script by del Toro and his direction impeccable, but words simply cannot do this the imagery of Pan's Labyrinth justice. Guillermo del Toro does what any good director should do--he shows the audience things that they have never seen before. Pan's Labyrinth was made with a budget of only $16,000,000, and yet it looks like a much more expensive film.
This is not to say Pan's Labyrinth is a great film simply because of del Toro's considerable talents. The movie also has a great cast. At only 11, Ivana Baquero already seems like an accomplished actress, lending Ofelia a vulnerability that is all too real against the backdrop of Franco's Spain. Sergi Lopez makes Captain Vidal one of the most black hearted villains to appear on the screen in years, and yet he is also utterly realistic. No cardboard cutout, the viewer understands all too well why Vidal is the way he is. Maribel Verdu also does well as Vidal's housekeeper, who has her own share of secrets.
To put it simply, Pan's Labyrinth is simply a great film. It is by far the best movie that Guillermo del Toro has ever made (which given the high quality of his other movies is really saying something). Indeed, it amazes me that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate Pan's Labyrinth for Best Picture or del Toro for Best Director. Although I have yet to see all the nominees for Best Picture, I can definitely say that Pan's Labyrinth is the best movie of 2006. In fact, I rather suspect that years from now film historians will look back and see the failure of Pan's Labyrinth to receive nominations for both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars as a grave injustice. It is one of those few films which one simply must see.