You’ve got to be in the right frame of mind to watch Pan’s Labyrinth and enjoy it. I’m not sure what that frame of mind would be, exactly, but I wasn’t in it.
I want to make it clear up front that it’s a very good movie. The story is very well told, imaginative but grounded in a real-world setting that makes it relevant. All the performances are excellent, the effects and costume design and set design are perfectly balanced between fantasy and reality. There are several scenes that are masterfully done and literally unforgettable. So I acknowledge that my failure to enjoy it is exactly that — a failure on my part.
My theory is that a big part of it is knowing what you’re getting into. Yes, I’d read up on it a little bit, and I was aware that it was rated R. But I purposefully avoided reading or seeing too much about it, because so much of the enjoyment of a fantasy movie depends on being surprised. I only read one review, from Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com, because we’ve got a 90% solid track record of agreeing 100% about movies. She usually can perfectly describe my reaction to a movie in just a few paragraphs what I can ramble on about for pages and still not quite get right.
So if you read her review, you’ll see lots of talk about fairy tales and imagery and fantasy and you might take away the idea, as I did, that it’s like a more adult version of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Be aware that it’s not. I was even prepared for that to some extent; the faun as shown in the promotional pictures is clearly much creepier even than David Bowie, and a movie with a guy with eyes in his hands is clearly going to be darker than the Muppets.
I did notice that most reviews of Pan’s Labyrinth classify it as “horror/suspense,” but I didn’t put much stock in that, and I still don’t. It’s not a horror movie; it’s definitely a fantasy. But you have to watch it as if it were a horror movie. For me, as someone who really doesn’t do well with horror movies but is still convinced I’ve got some kind of manly image to maintain, that means being hunched over uncomfortably-but-trying-to-look-casual in the seat, head averted, trying to see just enough through peripheral vision to be able to follow what’s going on.
But despite my squeamishness, I realize it was essential for the movie. Because it isn’t horror movie gore, or over-the-top effects-driven fantasy violence, but sudden brutality, and torture, and emergency field medical procedures. The kind of stuff that goes on during a war, and the movie is set during (or immediately after?) the Spanish civil war. And almost all of it is necessary; there are only a couple of sequences towards the end that I thought were gratuitous. (And I wrote those off as being an after effect of Guillermo del Toro’s horror movie background, not quite as well-integrated as the B-horror-movie sections of the Lord of the Rings movies).
The gore and violence perfectly sets up the mood. This isn’t a story that starts in the real world and then escapes to a fantasy land; it’s a war story told from a child’s perspective, where fairies and fauns and nightmare monsters exist in the shadows. And it’s because of the horror movie elements that the movie just feels right throughout — in the real world, violence and horror can come at any moment, so you’re waiting for the moment when the good guys will be found out, and something terrible is going to happen to them.
The relatively few fantasy sequences feel like genuine escape; there’s plenty of gross stuff to see, but it’s all child-level gross. The feeling isn’t one of horror or impending disaster, but of adventure — you’re tense not because you’re thinking someone’s gonna die! as much as oh, she’s going to get in a lot of trouble! It conveys the mood and transition so much more effectively than going through some magic doorway to a sparkling fairy world.
And the more I think about the movie, the more I appreciate it. If nothing else, that’s the surest sign of a classic. There’s one scene in particular, where Ofelia looks into her magic book for guidance only to see swirls of red, that I could only describe as a master work. (Obviously, there’s more to it, but I don’t want to ruin the scene for anyone).
Until now, my opinion of Guillermo del Toro was based only on the few movies of his I’d seen — Mimic, Blade 2, and Hellboy — and a ton of promotional interviews for Hellboy. And I dismissed him as being a smart guy who has a great sense for what’s cool, what makes a cool story, and can articulate why it’s cool, but still somehow ends up making average genre movies salvaged only by one or two memorable images.
Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t just a good movie. It might even lend a little credence to the auteur theory and show what can happen when an imaginative moviemaker isn’t hobbled by the archetypal Hollywood Machine. And even though I didn’t enjoy watching it, I’m glad I saw it.