‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is one twisted fairytale

Ben Raymond

Do you remember bedtime stories? Sure you do. They went something like …

“Once upon a time, in a far-away kingdom, there lived a magical princess under the spell of a wicked witch … blah, blah, blah … then she met Prince Charming, got pregnant and lived in a pumpkin. The end.”

But not everyone’s pre-slumber narratives were so pleasant and sweet. For people like Guillermo Del Toro, writer/director of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the Sandman was one twisted villain. In his fairy tale, the princess lives under the iron fist of a bloodthirsty, fascist psychopath; the kingdom is in the midst of a civil war; and the fairies themselves are dismembered and consumed by a baby-eating monster. Yeah, that’s what I said: a baby-eating monster.

Our hero is young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) whose spirited imagination and charming passion for fantastical stories give her respite from the carnage of the Spanish Civil War that rages around her. With the help of the poised and cunning Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), she cares for her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who endures a difficult pregnancy with the son of her new husband, the vicious Captain Vidal (Sergi López). As Ofelia comforts her mother and fights to avoid the wrath of the Captain, she is drawn into the realm of the labyrinth: a majestic, macabre underworld that awaits her return and its salvation.

The film unfolds as a compelling, imaginative series of obtuse detours from the fairy tale prototype. Del Toro does not satirize this so much as he offers a new, fresh spin on the genre. With great skill and passion, he creates an elegant, cadaverous dreamscape teeming with ornate, shuddersome creatures and a ravishing sense of spectacle.

How often, in film, do we get to see a sketchy, old faun tell a girl to crawl inside a tree and shove three magic stones into a mammoth, belching toad so that it will turn itself inside-out and die in order to get a magic key that opens up a portal in a room full of delicious food she isn’t supposed to touch under pain of death but does anyway? Or what about a loose-skinned, shrieking, child-hungry monster with eyes on the palms of its hands chases her down after ripping to shreds two of her fairy friends? Not often.

I think the above says “this film is unique” sufficiently. So, I’ll move on.

Performances ensemble-round are to be commended; in particular, the delightful 13-year-old Baquero delivers a rousing, heartfelt performance that should have garnered some attention from awards guilds this year. Also to be applauded is the performance of López, who, in recent memory, is one of my favorite raving lunatic sadists.

I should mention one thing before I leave you. Despite the happy-go-lucky trailers for the film, it is not, in any way, for the faint of heart. I urge Harry Potter junkies to stay home or bring a bucket. This film is not for you. Why, you ask? Well, a man gets his face impaled repeatedly with a metal poker like he’s the mole in “Whack-a-Mole,” and another gets his cheek forcefully flayed open with a knife. That’s why.

My readers are probably sick and tired of me writing rave reviews with no hint of dissatisfaction. Well, here you go.

The only significant flaw of the movie would be the lack of cohesiveness between the real-world story and that of the labyrinth. Ofelia’s little excursions fragment the terrestrial story unnecessarily, and some more careful thought into the chronology and flow within the entire narrative would have been beneficial. Furthermore, a lack of allegory between the two serves as a negative and frustrating missed opportunity.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is a nightmarish, beautiful and entirely original experience that lends the viewers a true sense of entrapment, marshalling them into a richly imaginative gothic otherworld. Alarmingly violent and perfectly inventive, it smoothly melds drama, fantasy and thrills into an entrancing, radiant picture.