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Imaginative film lacks depth and meaning

Brian Doxtader | Wednesday, January 24, 2007

“Pan’s Labyrinth” wants badly to be a great movie, but its reach exceeds its grasp. It is a creative and unique film, and its originality is admirable, but it never pulls together as a singular work, and that lack of cohesiveness ultimately prevents it from being as good a picture as it could be.

Set against the turmoil of 1944 Spain, when the Spanish Civil War was coming to a close, “Pan’s Labyrinth” follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a girl who accompanies her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to a military camp. Carmen has married the brutal Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who is attempting to weed out a group of rebels who have taken to the mountains. Carmen and Ofelia are looked after by Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), one of Vidal’s servants. Mercedes’ brother, however, is one of the leaders of the rebels, and Mercedes is secretly aiding them. During all of this, Ofelia is drawn to a nearby labyrinth and confronted by a mysterious faun named Pan (Doug Jones, who also plays the eerie Pale Man), who informs her that she has the soul of a lost princess and must pass three tests to prove herself and take her rightful place in her true father’s kingdom.

The biggest problem with “Pan’s Labyrinth” is that, despite its multifaceted complexity, it’s not nearly as immersive as it should be. The continual narrative shifts between the “real world” and the “fantasy world” are jolting and the film’s narrative footing is too dependent on Mercedes and the rebellion when it should concentrate on Ofelia. The three tests that Ofelia is given are simplistic in nature, and occasionally complicate (rather than clarify) her character.

The film’s lack of cohesiveness detracts from the movie as a whole, though there is much to admire, particularly in its craftsmanship. The film is undeniably beautiful, especially in its art direction and sense of form. The script, penned by Del Toro, is humorless but complicated, brimming with ideas and creativity. Unfortunately, it too often lacks thematic unity, spiraling in several different directions without fully exploring most of them.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is also quite dark and violent, with many disturbing scenes that are difficult and off-putting. For a film touted as an escapist fantasy, there’s simply too much reality. The harshness and brutality of the “real world” threaten to overshadow what is ostensibly the narrative crux of the picture, which dilutes much of the film’s impact.

Ivana Baquero, all of 12 years old, is superb as Ofelia. In many ways, the film rests on her shoulders, and her controlled, measured performance mixes innocence and wisdom perfectly. Sergi Lopez offers the other standout performance as the monstrous Captain Vidal, evoking shades of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth from “Schindler’s List.”

It’s not hard to see why critics are raving about “Pan’s Labyrinth,” since it feels like a picture specifically designed to make an artistic statement. Unfortunately, it never quite coalesces as a complete work, but it does hint at future greatness from a filmmaker starting to hit his stride.

Del Toro has proven himself a director capable of great visual beauty, but he has yet to make a movie that fulfills his enormous potential. He is far more talented than previous works like “Mimic,” “Blade II” and “Hellboy” might have indicated, and “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a great leap forward for him as an artistically-minded filmmaker. The picture itself, however, is never as immersive or emotionally effective as it should be.