Making myths from near-contemporary iconography, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labryrinth sets the tale of a possibly reincarnated fairy princess in a fascist military outpost in 1944 Spain, with both realities ecstatically hyper-. Publicly, Ofelia (12-year-old-Ivana Banquero) has a heavily pregnant war widow mother, a capitan stepfather whose black leather fingers tick off the days until his son’s birth, and a servant who aids the anti-Franco resistance hidden in the nearby mountains. Privately, she’s led underground by a sprite, informed of her storybook lineage by a Hensonian marble faun, and given tasks including treks into the tree-stump lair of an engorged toad and (via magic chalk) the parallel-dimension dining room of a blanched, flabby cadaver with its eyes on its hands. The passion of Del Toro extends to a natural world of mud-blackening rainstorms and dust mote-constellated sunbeams. And for the splatterheads checking out the Blade 2 auteur’s latest, there’s amputations, torture, and a single-take self-surgery.
But Del Toro’s fever-dreamy imagery is anchored in his screenplay’s tidy collision-course subplots and first act plants/third act payoffs. Noting Pan’s’ blue/pink pairing with Del Toro’s previous Spanish Civil War fantasy, The Devil’s Backbone — that a ghost story starring schoolboys, climaxing in an act of retributive violence; this a fairytale princess story starring a girl, climaxing in an act of maternal protectiveness — one wonders if his reverence isn’t for cliché. Given that both Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth end with triumphs over their Franco stand-ins, and remembering his effective Original Sin allegory Hellboy, it’s likely Del Toro is at his most profound dumpster-diving for pop-trash resonance, rather than being overwhelmed by actual historical profundities.