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REVIEW | Child’s Play: Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”

REVIEW | Child's Play: Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth"

“A fairy tale for grown-ups!” exclaim the mindless reviewers who can’t get their noses out of their press kits. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Aside from its highly exploitative and infantile use of graphic gore, this one is strictly for the kiddies, or at least, those reared on banalities. Guillermo Del Toro‘s “Pan’s Labyrinth” was anointed a masterpiece after its highly feted [read: fetid] Cannes and New York Film Festival premieres – and as much as the film barely deserves a snort of recognition, let alone the sorts of accolades usually set aside for films by great masters, its success shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ensconced in reassuringly Hollywood-cribbed CGI and offering the kind of black-and-white moral dilemmas and historical simplifications that should rightly make any rabid anti-Spielberg polemicist bear his fangs, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is this year’s “Amelie,” the prototypical Foreign Film for Dummies.

It’s strange when a director is suddenly canonized – the different levels of fortuity, media hype, and bad taste that conglomerate to ascend directors like Del Toro, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and Park Chan-wook to the level of art-house sacred cow are the same that keep true artists like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, and the Dardenne Brothers in cinephile limbo. The central problem with “Pan’s Labyrinth” is that it resolutely denies any challenge to its audience – its provocations are simply of the shock-and-awe variety (a man needle-and-threading up the Cheshire cat gash opening his face from mouth to cheek, a peasant’s face being bashed in with a jagged glass bottle until it crumbles into mush) and are expert in tricking the audience they’re seeing something of gravity. In fact, Del Toro’s incessant, almost delighted focus on stomach-churning violence is particularly hypocritical in a film that purports to denounce fascist ideology. Del Toro, a self-avowed horror fanatic and the maker of such empty products as “Blade II” and “Hellboy” (but they have swirly-whirly camera movements! Gosh-darn!), doesn’t know the first thing about the moral representation of death and torture, and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” for all its Gilliam-esque retreating into a mythical Wonderland, is simply “Hostel” for the middlebrow crowd – with less political authenticity.

In fairness, Ivana Baquero is charming and poignant as the resourceful preadolescent protagonist Ofelia, who moves to the Spanish countryside directly following the country’s Civil War with her ailing, pregnant mother, widowed by the war, to live at the home and military outpost of her new fascist stepfather, the so-evil-it’s-ridiculous Vidal, a captain who reports directly to General Franco. As played by Sergei Lopez, that blank-faced international cinema mainstay who’s becoming ever more adept at soulless villains with absolutely no human dimensions whatsoever (see the ludicrous “With a Friend Like Harry…“), Vidal becomes Del Toro’s simplified boogeyman and Franco stand-in, whose evil can be vanquished by story’s end…of course, if, you know, you just believe, or something. Del Toro navigates all this through a bunch of haphazard, fantastical set pieces that bear little relation to one another (especially the dazzlingly designed and “totally-cool” creature-featured segment in which a saggy-boned monster with eyeballs in his palms chases Ofelia – it has literally nothing to do with the rest of the film). That Del Toro claims “Pan’s Labyrinth” to be his political work is laughable: there’s no interest in how social structures function or how Franco’s ascension affected Spain’s scorched postwar landscape, just an opportunity for the director to marry his phantasmagoric visual style to a narrative of “import.” And if that’s not cynical enough, Del Toro pushes the whole leaden thing to a trite tearjerker of a climax that would out-corn Capra.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]

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absolutely spot-on, save the chan park wook mention. ‘oh dude, its like a fairy tale ending, but it freudian…i totally get it.’ i love how all the douches leave the ‘art’ theatre feeling all proud of themselves when they manage to ‘get’ movies like this. sad


I prefer to lend myself to any production and if it has something to it I will be swept away. I was.

brian owens

Yours is precisely the WORST type of review possible – you don’t comment on the film, you comment on how others perceived the film and then merely use the film as evidence of how much cooler you are than anyone else.

Call Mommy or Daddy or whichever parent didn’t like you and stop writing about movies. I reviewed most of your website, and you obviously can fool some people with your faux post-modern cynicism, and double-latte attitudes, but those of us who read more than a couple of back issues of Cahier du Cinema can see right through you.

Everything you write is about you – not about the film – and you’re not nearly as interesting as you think you are.

m ng

This comment is a bit late – in spite of Mr. Koresky’s deep dislike of P’s L, the film is actually very useful in theorizing fairytale genre. As a literary critic and teacher, I believe the film has a kind of complexity that has been too readily brushed aside by Mr. Koresky. Too bad.


I think Mr. Koresky should consider not writing about films. A joke of course, what would he do without Reverse Shot?:) I am disappointed with the review. As someone said, ?no matter how good your film is there will always be a duschbag who hates it?. Mr. Koresky needs to revisit the movie with a more open and focused mind. He finds the Pale Man figure totally irrelevant, when it is a symbol of the Catholic Church and other organised institutions that demand sometimes blind obedience, even for murky reasons. That scene is referring to the “forbiden fruit” theme, important in the Christian and the Jewish religions. “…a trite tearjerker of a climax that would out-corn Capra.”?? Hmm, does any Capra’s film include a 10-year old innocent girl being shot dead? While dying, she imagines finally meeting her “real father” as a reward for not sacrificing her little brother: another “up yours” to the Christian religion which has its God demand a gory and brutal sacrifice from his own Son to spare the mankind. The film also tells how a child escapes into imagination to hide from the horrors of everyday life, and how this imagination is influenced by real life and also books (she is an avid fairy-tales reader). The film shows, in Captain Vidal, how a screwed-up childhood can scar a man psychologically and can shape his later obsessions. The film is a refreshing return to the tales as they intitially were – dark and grim folk tales or myths, which were completely not the way Disney and the likes present them, which told a lot about the dark side of Man and presented the imaginary creatures like fauns or Gods as often capricious, vicious, deceitful, complicated, mean. A bit like human beings. Probably Mr. Koresky thinks that the original Greek myths are trite and meaningless, and so are the tales of the Grimm brothers. He is free to.

fernando montero

Koresky is spot on.


I’m surprised you said that the Pale Man scene “has literally nothing to do with the rest of the film.” If you really think that, then you completely missed the central message of the film: that blind obedience is not the path through the Labyrinth. Ofelia deliberately disobeyed the Faun’s rules by eating the grapes and waking up the saggy-boned monster (even though she was told that would mean certain death), just as the doctor deliberately disobeyed the Captain’s orders (even though he knew that meant certain death). In fact, without the Pale Man scene, which you described as merely a haphazard “creature-feature,” the whole film would have had no meaning. Make sure you understand the film before you criticize it! Blind criticism is a cousin to blind obedience…


I loved Pan’s Labyrinth, just because its moral dilemmas are simplistic doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. Some of your points may be valid but I think you’d make a better case if this wasn’t such a ridiculous rant.


“Volver” is this year’s “Amelie.”

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