I’m sorry to report that Del Toro’s latest was a huge disappointment for me.
Admittedly I was expecting a completely different movie; the teaser and trailer for Pan’s Labyrinth are completely misleading: I was expecting a fairy tale with some historical window dressing but what I got was primarily a Spanish Civil War drama interrupted by two or three relatively short scenes of fantasy.
That isn’t to say the fantastical bits aren’t great, they are great and undoubtedly the highlights of the movie, but there is little more of them than what is shown in the trailer. Unfortunately its R rating (deserved) is for the brutality of its realistic scenes, not the boldness of its vision.
So some of my disappointment is due just to the content which made me restless and bored, but I was also disappointed to find it actually an anti-fairy tale, in a couple of ways. Firstly, the fantasy bits are used to emphasize the horror of real life, rather than realistic scenes being the foil for the fantastical. Imagine The Wizard of Oz as mostly a black-and-white movie about Kansas, with just a few color detours along the Yellow Brick Road to reinforce the rest of the movie’s dreariness.
That’s actually a pretty good analogy now that I think about it, because (and this is the second way) the film itself is not a fairy tale. There is a fairy tale in the movie but as I said the movie is an anti-fairy tale, whose fantasy is “true” only in the weakest sense.
The inevitable comparison is with Tideland, which is basically the same concept with a radically different execution. Both are about a girl who uses fantasy to escape from horror, but Tideland achieves that fantasy exclusively through point of view. I know everyone thinks Gilliam’s movie was self-indulgent and gratuitous, but it was more interesting.
But don’t take my word for it because Pan’s Labyrinth is still at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Mark Kermode of the Observer calls it “the very best film of the year” and “a Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema” so I’m afraid I just missed the boat on this one.