My top 100 has so far seen it all: guilty pleasures, romantic comedies, thought-provoking dramas, animated films, etc. But the one genre that is massively under presented is fantasy. Part of the reason for this is because I don’t see all that many. Another is that the ones I have seen just don’t do it for me, sadly. Whilst Pan’s Labyrinth is not strictly just a fantasy, Guillermo del Toro does incorporate a lot of elements of fantasy in it, and it stands proudly as the only film of its type on my list.
Pre-adolescent Ofelia is a wide-eyed wanderer who immerses herself in a world of books. Along with her heavily pregnant mum, she is propelled to an unfamiliar lifestyle into living with her stepdad in the midst of Franco-era Spain, Ofelia lives in a world of fantasy to avoid facing the stark grittiness of real life.
One day at night she is led into a labyrinth, wherein she meets a faun who promises to make her a princess if she can carry out three tasks. Sounds simple, no? Well, not if the tasks involve placing stones in a giant toad’s stomach and evading the terrifying Pale Man…
Ofelia’s stepdad, El Capitan, is a cruel and sadistic bastard with very little consideration for anything apart from getting things done his way, and producing an heir (seeing his wife as little other as a womb for his son to grow in). In one unforgettable scene, he attacks two rabbit poachers (who he imagines to be trespassers) in the most brutal and disturbing way imaginable, only to discover that they were indeed hunting rabbits. He’s no nonsense, no morality, no soul, and he is feared by all around him.
Meanwhile, Ofelia is pursuing her adventure in her quest to become princess. What starts out as exciting and whimsical for her, soon escalates into something much, much darker. The Toad tasks was scary and a bit minging, and Ofelia gets into trouble because she ruins her new dress. But that is nothing compared to her second task, where she must steal a dagger from the chambers of the Pale Man, an eyeless, boney monster that sits still, until food from his chamber is consumed. When he doesn’t sit still, he’s out for the kill. And finally, she must use the dagger as the faun tells her to, in the biggest challenge, and sacrifice, of them all.
Pan’s Labyrinth is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There are elements of war movie scattered about, with the grainy battle scenes and focus on the casualties of war. It is also a fairy tale; a twisted one at that, but a fairy tell, about a girl and her quest. And then there’s the drama, with the dark story of a girl who suspects she is losing her mother to a pregnancy that isn’t good for her, and her being left, alone, in a place she hates and a stepdad she hates more.
The two worlds of real and imagery come together the ingenious art direction of Eugenio Cabellero, and Guillermo Navarro's lush cinematography. The musical score by Javier Navarrete is also excellent in how it uses the theme of a hummed lullaby and presents this theme in many different forms – aided with a thick orchestral palatte – to modulate the tone from daydream, to nightmare, and back again. And Guillermo del Toro, who knows how to direct a fantasy like no-one you’ve ever seen (this year’s Hellboy 2 was rollicking good fun) ties everything together masterfully, expertly paralleling Ofelia's own terrible reality with an equally terrifying and terrible fantasy.
And, of course, there’s the cast. Sergi López has created one of the most despised villains of all time. I personally feel that his character in Dirty Pretty Things was even more despicable, but El Capitan certainly comes close. The audience feels a heavy sense of grim satisfaction when he finally gets his comeuppance. Maribel Verdu also gives a good supporting turn, as the put-upon servant who loathes her employer, but has to live everyday without showing it.
But the film absolutely belongs to Barça-born Ivana Baquero, whose big eyes and dulcet Spanish tones carry the film. As Ofelia, she is smart but slightly naïve, tough externally but fragile inside, and, through her endless reading, has become eternally curious about the world around her. In entering the fantasy world, she encounters creatures and events that are as horrifying as those in the world she is trying so hard to escape. But most of all, she is a good, kind, person. Ofelia’s bravery and dedication to her task put her through some appalling ordeals, and in the end, I wanted her to succeed and find redemption more than anything else in the world.