I’m going to begin the review of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth where I usually end these reviews – a discussion of why this film is here on the list. Pan’s Labyrinth is on this list because six of the thirty-seven critics surveyed named it one of the best films of the first decade of this new century. Daniel Fienberg of HitFix named it the best film of the 2000s. It was also the film with the highest metascore on this list.
I actually previously saw Pan’s Labyrinth when it was originally released in theaters. I remembered liking it, thinking it was generally good, but not being as wowed by it as everyone else is or was. I had much the same response watching it again all these years later – and I think I know why.
There is a huge divide between the quality of Pan’s Labyrinth’s make-up, art design, sound design, and special effects and the quality of its story. All those artistic qualities are amazing. The magical creatures like the stick insects that become fairies and the Faun (Doug Jones) are beautifully rendered. The underworld realms are spectacular. The sets are amazing, and I especially liked that Del Toro creates a labyrinth as opposed to a maze (a distinction not always observed). The acting is superb. Ivana Baquero was a great young actress (who’s subsequent work I’ve never seen). Sergi Lopez is excellent as the film’s antagonist. Rounding out the cast, Maribel Verdu, who was last mentioned in these reviews for playing a far sexier but equally tragic role in is excellent as the film’s antagonist. Rounding out the cast, Maribel Verdu, who was last mentioned in these reviews for playing a far sexier but equally tragic role in Y Tu Mama, Tambien, deftly delivers a nuanced and intriguing performance in the film’s most challenging role.
On the other hand, there is the plot. Baquero stars as Ofelia, a young girl who is taken by her mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her mother’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Lopez), in the forests of Spain. Vidal is a local leader of General Franco’s forces, tasked with eliminating the remaining pockets of resistance to Franco’s new regime. Near her new home, Ofelia discovers the ruins of an old labyrinth. There she meets the Faun, a magical creature who tells her that she is the reincarnation of an underworld princess. All she has to do is complete three tasks and claim her destiny.
The set-up of the plot is fine, but it all goes wrong in act two when Ofelia fails her second task. Upon learning of her failure, the Faun becomes infuriated with her. He declares that she will never see him again. Then Ofelia’s mother dies. Vidal locks Ofelia in her room, and the Faun appears unprompted, completely reverses his previous position (for no reason and without explanation) and gives Ofelia another chance to complete her tasks and seize her destiny. Now, this could be explained away by claiming that the Faun was always a figment of Ofelia’s imagination. One shot at the end of the film would tend to confirm that. On the other hand, the Faun’s magic appears to affect the real world (it’s what allows Ofelia to escape from her locked bedroom – she draws a door on the wall with magic chalk given to her by the Faun). I would say that the film, when read as a whole, is more consistent with the Faun’s reality than with the Faun being imaginary.
I have never encountered a single review of Pan’s Labyrinth that mentioned the capriciousness and inconsistency of the Faun’s character. I suspect the reason for that is that you have to discuss the plot of the film in some detail in order to make that case. Pan’s Labyrinth is the single biggest beneficiary of the prohibition on spoilers in the history of cinema. Convention prevents the reviewer from engaging in an in depth analysis of the film’s plot – and consequently, reviewers are left to gush over the beauty and majesty of the visuals. The film’s flaw, terrible plotting in the second half and inconsistent characterization during the film’s climax, get a pass.
Well, not from me. Pan’s Labyrinth is not the best film of the decade by a wide margin. It’s a technical achievement. It is a thing of beauty, but its plot is too messy to justify a rating any higher than 2.5 out of 5 stars. It was rightly forgotten by many of the same reviewers who lavished it with praise when it came time to select the best films of the decade. Perhaps I’ll have more luck in my quest for a classic when I review 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.
From Out in the VoidSteven