As with 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, director Guillermo del Toro confronts fascism in WWII-era Spain through the filter of the fantastical with Pan’s Labyrinth, a lush gothic fable whose exquisite production design masks a rather stiff, schematic narrative skeleton. After her widowed, pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) agrees to marry boot-stomping Captain Vidal (Sergi López), young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) finds herself living in a forest-encased military outpost. Confronted by her new stepfather’s repressive worldview, the girl retreats into a magical fairy tale in which a sly fawn (Doug Jones) convinces her that she’s a long-lost queen and must perform a series of dangerous tasks to reclaim her rightful throne. Thus the director posits a dichotomy between the real and the unreal that’s meant to convey the transcendent power of the imagination, as well as to illuminate the fact that life’s actual monsters are not those with eyes in their hands (as is the case with the film’s most marvelous creature) but rather the two-legged ones intent on dictatorially imposing their unjust will on others. I say “meant to” because, while del Toro’s film has a sumptuous visual creepiness that contributes to its affecting portrait of shattered childhood innocence, its story nonetheless often feels too diagrammed, its juxtapositions and paternal/political symbolism as tidily laid out as its characterizations – specifically, the one-dimensionally evil Vidal – are cookie-cutter caricatures. Whereas Vidal’s black-and-white ethos should be contrasted to the wild unruliness of Pan’s netherworld, instead, unfortunately, it eventually comes to typify Pan’s Labyrinth’s clear-cut distinctions between reality and fantasy.
(The 44th New York Film Festival)