Pan's Labyrinth ★★★★

Going into Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth, I was expecting a tale similar to Alice in Wonderland, where a little girl is whisked away to a magical land full of beautiful yet sometimes frightening creatures. But what I got from this film instead was something very different. Pan’s Labyrinth serves as an exploration of childhood, or more specifically, how children in dire circumstances have to use the only thing they have left, their imagination, to give themselves hope. Ofelia is forced to live with an abusive, psychotic war general in the backdrop of a civil war, with her mother falling gravely ill due to her pregnancy. Her only true escape from the horrors that await her are the fairy tales in her books. But soon, the characters and creatures from those books come to life, and offer her the chance to escape her oppressive situation. Throughout the whole film, we are never explicitly told whether what’s going on is real or not; is Ofelia interacting with all these strange creatures, or is it all in her head? The film expertly gives just enough hints towards the truth that it could honestly go either way. But the important thing through it all is that, real or not, these fantastical adventures offer her a chance of hope that she may one day live a better life. Her future may be uncertain, but at least her imagination helps her get through the day.

The imagination on display here is a sight to behold. Guillermo Del Toro channels the fantastical artstyle of a classic fairy tale into the creature and world design. They certainly give the film a very unnerving and creepy atmosphere, but they still manage to retain that sense of childlike wonder. These creatures are brought to life with a mixture of both practical effects and CGI, and they both work tremendously well. Computer effects are only really utilized when it makes more sense to do so, like with the fairies, and practical effects are used for nearly everything else. The Faun and the Pale Man, in the hands of a different director, would no doubt be computer-generated monstrosities, but the fact that Del Toro chose to go the more difficult route truly shows his dedication to his craft.

Something I really appreciate about this film is that despite being about childhood imagination, it is certainly not a film for children. The war going on in the real world is hauntingly palpable. You can truly feel the horrified emotions of the side characters who have to endure this battle. Captain Vidal is such an omni-present villain, and his unpredictable nature makes him that much more terrifying. The visuals on display can be downright grotesque, from all the gore and brutality, to the disgusting slime and horrifying monsters. The film certainly earns its R rating, yet it can tell a tale that feels so innocent at heart. 

Pan’s Labyrinth is an incredibly unique look at the power of childhood imagination and how it can assist those who are struggling to help them get through their unfortunate situations. It crafts a world brimming with creativity, but decides to use it sparingly to elicit a feeling of hopelessness. In this way, this fantastical world, and in turn, imagination, act as light at the end of the tunnel. It may be unrealistic to travel to some far away land, but if it helps kids get through their day, then what’s the matter with that?

Criterion Challenge 2021

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