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Sunday, January 28, 2007

REVIEW - "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)

It's always great to see director's come a long way and eventually prove themselves to be some of the best talent out there. Guillermo del Toro's case is almost an inspiration. He made horror movies that went unnoticed, but interest in him buzzed when "Mimic" (1997) came out. After that less than thrilling horror movie his next really big release was "Blade II" (2002). The movie is considered the best of those films, but that's not saying much. He really broke out with "Hellboy" (2004) though. It's a very well made, comic book derived film with fantastic visual appeal and admirable themes. However, as good as the movie was, it was still your standard summer action piece. So what's the next step for a director like this? Make a masterpiece of gigantic proportions, insane visual design, strong narrative and powerful characters you will both adore and despise? Yeah, yeah, pretty much.

"Pan's Labyrinth" opens us to the worlds of Ofelia, a little girl who teeters between the down-to-earth world of the Spanish Civil War and the fantastical arrival of fairies, a faun and a hungry, eyeless monster. She and her pregnent mother arrive in a rural area in Spain to live with her mother's ruthless new husband, Capt. Vidal. Vidal is currently mopping out what's left of the leftists after the War and feels a son should born with his father. While a war rages Ofelia finds Pan, a faun in a nearby labyrinth (go figure), that offers her the chance to leave her current surroundings of war, confusion and pain. Pan of course jumps for the chance and attempts to complete the tasks needed to cross worlds.

Most of the film centers on the war, Ofelia's mother's problems during pregnency and the trials many characters have chosen to face. Much of the fantasy element is limited to maybe a quarter of the whole film, but that's fine. The fantastical world is only shown to Ofelia; allowing any of the other characters to see such bizzare creatures and happenings would only cheapen it. Del Toro's gifted eye for set designs, creatures and dark, disturbing worlds really gives this movie an amazing feel and he knows how to balance reality and fantasy very well. The Spanish Civil War is nothing stylized. It's a serious, violent, grunt war with disturbing images. But when Ofelia witnesses the world Pan introduces to her, the movie looks very different. The look is probably also the reason for an R rating. Though the film has a child protagonist, it is not, by any stretch or viable means, a film for children. It is gut-wrenching and violent in both the real and ficticious worlds. Even though the violence and images are different in both worlds, it can really push a viewer to the edge because it's hard to keep switching back and forth. But that's part of the point. It takes talent to keep both world's different, but equally disturbing.

The films characters are break through any cliches they might be expected to have and are quite strong. Ofelia is the little protagonist you just want to root for and she's successful. Her innocence doesn't belong in the harsh reality and fits better in the world of fantasy. (A point that's very key to the story I might add.) And as much as I loved Ofelia, I may have hated Capt. Vidal even more. I'm not sure if I've ever hated a character so much in my twenty years of watching films. He's one of the most repulsive characters to grace the screen. Sergi Lopez, who plays Vidal, does a great job of making you hate him. You'll be praying for him to suffer through most of the film. Maribel Verdu plays Mercedes, a character I feel to be slightly underrated. She's a strong woman, but also a gentle one. Sometimes this mix in one character is hard to pull off, but the develpment was quite smooth and almost unexpected. Del Toro utilized her very well in the storyline.

Yes, it may have been a little predictable at some points and maybe it did hurt the emotional impact of certian scenes. But even so, the story could not and should not have been played out any differently. It doesn't hurt the beauty of the film and it takes integrity to move on with each scene knowing this is exactly the way the movie needs to be. "Pan's Labyrinth" is, by far, one of the best movies of 2006. It's a great story about a war that has been explored very little in film and also a beautiful, but dark, fantasy with a strong narrative of glorifying innocence and the pursuit for something better in our lives. "Hellboy 2" may not be any "Pan's Labyrinth", but I sure as hell look forward to del Toro's future projects. He's finally proved himself with a masterpiece. How impressive.

**** out of ****

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