Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro movie, 2006)

I had been wanting to watch Pan’s Labyrinth for many months, prepared to love it. I already love The Devil’s Backbone, the 2001 ghost story by Guillermo del Toro, and Pan’s Labyrinth is a kind of companion piece to that picture. Unfortunately, this movie is not as good as his earlier gem.

The 2006 movie is an R-rated fairy tale (graphic violence and some language). It intertwines the brutal realities of 1944 Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War with a subterranean fantasy world populated by magical creatures including a big, goatish faun (Doug Jones) and a fairylike insect that is part mantis, part Tinker Bell.

The central character is an adorable young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose new stepfather is a cruel fascist captain (Sergi López i Ayats) sniffing out anti-Franco guerrillas in the mountains. Ofelia’s mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is suffering through a difficult pregnancy, carrying Captain Vidal’s unborn child. Both the guerrillas and an overgrown old labyrinth — the portal to the underground realm — lie in the woods just outside the captain’s garrison. Inside it, a local housekeeper (Maribel Verdú) and doctor (Álex Angulo) look after the needs of the captain and his people.

Nominated for six Academy Awards, Pan’s Labyrinth won three — for cinematography, makeup, and art direction. The movie is very impressive visually. Camera movements, wipes, sets and changing color palettes keep the story moving and bring us inside to experience it intimately. Special effects, employing both puppets and computer-generated images, are impressive but not too overdone. The sound editing and Javier Navarrete‘s Oscar-nominated score are excellent.

The performances of the actors are fine, but this is not a film which demands very much of its cast dramatically. There’s an economy of dialog, and the characters have a kind of comic book feel, serving more like camera subjects or figures in a dollhouse than living people with complicated inner workings.

The main problem here, though, is with the mythology of the fairy tale. It has golden keys and magical hollow trees and uterine caves and monsters and a little princess and three tests and lots of echoed symmetry, but it simply does not work. No matter how fantastic an automobile’s chrome and fins and upholstery might be, if the car does not run, it serves little function.

As Joseph Campbell taught, the reference of a mythology — whether in fairy tales or religion — has to be to you personally. Its symbol-language must function like a code, clicking open inside your own human heart into a living truth that orients you like a gyroscope. George Lucas, a Campbell disciple, got the mythology right in his first two Star Wars films. Pan’s Labyrinth tries very hard and very sincerely, but does not quite get there. There’s a giant, disgusting frog. Great, but what does that mean to me?

Still, it’s a pretty good frog, and there’s an amazing mandrake, and the ogre, named “Pale Man” in the credits (Doug Jones again), is really outstanding. I rated Pan’s Labyrinth four out of five stars at Netflix because it is such a feast for the eyes.

Guillermo del Toro will be in New Zealand for the next four years to direct The Hobbit and its sequel, so he will gain even more experience with the elements of myth and magic. Here’s hoping he continues to study and explore these mysteries, because he is tantalizingly close to making a masterpiece for all time. Really, really close. I mean, it’s right on the tip of his tongue.