According to the 80’s classic, Labyrinths are huge mazes full of strange Jim Henson creations, jolly musical interludes and David Bowie’s gigantic crotch. My tip of the day is this: Do not expect the same from Pan’s Labyrinth.
Expect instead a dark, textured, disturbing-as-hell piece that’s most certainly not for kiddies. It’s Spain in 1944, and young Ofelia travels with her pregnant mother to stay with her new stepfather, a captain dealing with the remnants of the Spanish civil war. Ofelia loves reading elaborate fairy tales, and as her mother battles with a difficult pregnancy, Ofelia stumbles across a strange labyrinth filled with mysterious beasties. So far so blah – it could easily be one of those made-for-Christmas kiddie flicks with words like ‘magical’ and ‘enchanting’ attached to it.
But this is from Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who’s responsible for things like Hellboy and Blade II. His new film is enchanting, but enchanting in the same way that a dripping hell-beast slowly dragging itself over the ground towards you might be enchanting. You’re certainly captivated, but you’re definitely freaking out at the same time. Guillermo designed the beasties himself, the most notable being ‘the Pale-Man’, a hairless baby-eater who inserts his eyes into his palms before commencing chase. Bowie’s crotch was disturbing, but christ, the Pale-Man would scar you for life if you encountered that as a child.
But the labyrinth inhabitants aren’t the only nasty things in this film. Ofelia’s new step dad, Capitan Vidal, is what you might call a bit of a twat. A violent fascist with a fondness for torture, who makes the giant toad Ofelia must deal with look like a cuddly rabbit. The action is split evenly between Ofelia’s adventures in her labyrinth and the ongoing battle between the Capitan and the resistance.
The look of Pan’s Labyrinth is darkly fantastic, but the sound of it adds brilliant texture. Slightest sounds – the creak of leather boots, the sharp crack of a bullet, the thwack of a hammer against face – are enhanced, making Ofelia’s world feel very much alive. The violence is brutal and shocking, but expertly cut. Very little gore is seen, but you most certainly feel it.
The parallels between the real world and the mythical are generally obvious (you'd have to be a fool not to notice the link between scary, monsterous daddy and scary, monsterous, err, monster) but cleverly executed, and the two compliment each other to produce an unsettling but compelling experience. It boasts a strong cast, prominent direction and awesome effects (considering the budget was around $13m – compare that to the $200m of Superman and you realise how absurd Hollywood can be).
For having a substantial impact on me, Pan gets an extra point, and I’m giving it another for portraying fantasy without relying on too many clichés or singing dwarves. Therefore, Pan’s Labyrinth stomps in with a chilling CF2. Watch it. Be enthralled. But don’t expect a fun romp in a maze. Or a big British crotch.