Guillermo del Toro is one of those unusual directors who keeps switching back and forth between big Hollywood productions and more modest, international films. While both have merit, it's that second category of films where del Toro is really able to shine. Pan's Labyrinth [El Laberinto del Fauno] is probably his most critically acclaimed film so far and for once I agree with the popular opinion. It's been a while since I last watched the film though, so I was looking forward to refresh my memory.
Guillermo del Toro's love for genre cinema is a characteristic that runs through his entire oeuvre, but he is at his best when he combines it with something deeper. Most of his Hollywood projects don't really allow him to do that and what remains are fun and amusing B-films with blockbuster budgets. More intimate projects like Pan's Labyrinth have less restrictions though and are able to leave a bigger impression, especially after multiple viewings. Not that this film is overly complex, but there's simply more to come back to once the novelty value has worn off.
Pan's Labyrinth is set five years after the Spanish Civil War, with the rebels still holed up in the mountains, fighting the Franco regime. After Ofelia's father was killed in the war, her mother remarried a Spanish captain in hope of a better life. Soon after, Ofelia's mom became pregnant with the captain's son. He summoned them to come live with him and they were moved to a remote farm, where the captain is trying to crush the remaining resistance. It's not a very pleasant place to grow up for a young girl, with her crude and strict new father expecting her to behave, while the rebels try to storm the farm.
Luckily Ofelia has a creative mind and before long she's exploring the labyrinth behind the farm, where a fairy is leading her straight to a Faun. This mythical creature tells Ofelia she is actually Princess Moanna, heir to the underground kingdom. Moanna ended up on Earth and lost her memory, in order to return to her kingdom she has to successfully perform three tasks. So while war rages all around Ofelia, she is busy retrieving golden keys and daggers in an all or nothing attempt to become the princess she was supposed to be.
Visually there's plenty to admire here. The CG may be showing some cracks left and right, but del Toro uses it sparingly and manages to construct a rather impressive universe with it. The overall effect is enhanced by the use of a strong color palette and effective lighting, creating a consistent magical atmosphere. The floaty and elaborate camera work further adds to that. Cherry on top are the creature designs, which are top notch. One of Pan's Labyrinth's most striking monsters (Pale Man) easily ranks as one of my clear fantastical highlights of the '00s.
The soundtack is less remarkable though. It's far from bad and still pulls a little weight in establishing the mood, but in the end it's not all that memorable and mostly fades away in the background. It's somewhat of a missed opportunity as it could've done a lot more to make certain key scenes stand out. While the music never detracts from the film, its lack of character is one of the main reasons why I'm not rating the film any higher. A clear case of underestimating the power of a good score.
Ivana Baquero steals the show as Ofelia. She was only 12 years old when the film was shot, but she handles her character with surprising grace. While I imagine the fantastical scenes weren't quite as difficult, it was impressive to see how she captured the dramatic aspect of her character during the rest of the film. The secondary cast is also pretty great, with Sergi López playing a truly despicable father figure and Maribel Verdú shining next to Baquero as her personal maid.
The strength of Pan's Labyrinth lies in its delicate balance of fantasy and drama. Afterwards you're sure to remember the fantastical scenes, but while watching the film, it's the dramatic moments that keep everything glued together. It's also really difficult to appoint a dominant genre once the film is over, not in the least because the fantastic elements are merely an escape from reality for Ofelia. Still, del Toro gives them the proper attention and never half-arses his way through the fantasy bits. Both genres reinforce each other perfectly, which is quite a feat.
Pan's Labyrinth is by far my favorite del Toro film so far, but with The Shape of Water raking in prizes left and right and appearing to be a close sibling to Pan's Labyrinth, that position might be up for grabs. That doesn't invalidate the quality on display here though. Pan's Labyrinth is a confident, creative and overall impressive film that illustrates how you can blend drama and fantasy while speaking to a large audience and still get a lot of critical acclaim for your work. It's an easy recommend if you haven't seen it already.