Pan’s Labyrinth

I want to make something clear right at the start: I do like this film. I want to make that fact clear now, because I’m concerned that what I’ll go on to say will give you the wrong impression; that I don’t like the film, or that I’m just trying to be contrary in the face of overwhelmingly positive reviews. It is a good film and I did enjoy it and I can’t really fault it. And yet…

Pan’s Labyrinth is set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in 1944, and tells the story of a young girl Ofelia and her pregnant and widowed mother arriving to live in the Northern Spanish countryside with the Fascist Capitán Vidal, who it appears is the father of the unborn child.

As life in the countryside becomes more violent thanks to Vidal’s repression of the local villagers and skirmishes between his troops and the remains of the Republican Guerilla movement, Ofelia retreats into a fantasy world where she is a Princess, charged with completing three generic fairy-tale tasks that will allow her to return to her kingdom, and, pointedly, her father.

I said that I can’t really fault it, and that’s largely true. The performances are compelling: Ivana Baquero is utterly charming as Ofelia, Sergi López as Vidal is basically Amon Goeth in Spanish form, and there are standout performances from Maribel Verdú, Álex Angulo and in particular Doug Jones who plays the roles of Pan the faun and the Pale Man. The film is beautifully shot, scored and scripted. The story is simplistic and black and white, but it’s a fairy-tale, so that’s to be expected.

I sense a ‘but’

So what’s my problem? I actually find it quite hard to articulate this — though having spoken to a few others who’ve seen the film, I at least know I’m not alone. Ultimately I didn’t feel the film did enough of what it was doing well. For instance, the film is imaginative, but is it any more imaginative than, say, Brazil, MirrorMask or even the 1986 Labyrinth? I don’t think so — the fantastical elements only take up 20–30% of the film, and I never felt fully absorbed in the make-believe world.

The film is scary — but briefly, in parts. The episode with the Pale Man is one of the creepier moments but it’s also over very quickly, and the creature itself still doesn’t chill as much as Vidal does. The film is gruesome — but again, only occasionally — enough to make you wince, but no more than that. Even the titular labyrinth is not particularly labyrinthine.

I also think my problem is simply one of raised expectations. When there’s a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, an 8.3 on IMDB and the likes of Mark Kermode are claiming that the film is the Citizen Kane of modern fantasy cinema, it’s tricky not to start expecting great things. Had I seen this without having heard anything about it, I’d have been pleasantly surprised — I may have even forgiven del Toro for the execrable Hellboy. As it was, though, I spent the whole two hours waiting to be absolutely blown away, and that never happened.

But I seem to be very much in a minority; in all probability, if you see this film you’ll love it, and that’s fair enough — like I said at the start, it is a good film.

I just didn’t think it was a great film.

By Paul Haine, in