“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.]