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"PAN'S LABYRNITH"
(2006) (Ivana Baquero, Sergio Lopez) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: To escape from her mean stepfather and the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a young girl escapes into a fantastical world where she must complete three tasks to prove whether she's its long-lost princess.
PLOT:
It's 1944 and young Ofelia (IVANA BAQUERO) has traveled with her pregnant mother Carmen (ARIADNA GIL) from the city to the countryside where they're to live with Carmen's new husband, Captain Vidal (SERGI LOPEZ). He's a stern military man assigned to round up, interrogate and kill roving bands of rebel guerillas, and his only interest in being a father concerns his unborn child that Carmen is carrying, not Ofelia.

Accordingly, and after meeting housekeeper Mercedes (MARIBEL VERDU) and attending physician Dr. Ferreiro (ALEX ANGULO), Ofelia ends up escaping into a fantasy world whose entrance is in an adjacent abandoned garden. There, she meets the towering faun Pan (DOUG JONES) who believes her to be his land's long-lost princess. Accordingly, he gives her three tasks to prove whether she is, quests that challenge her smarts, ability to follow directions, and courage.

As Vidal continues his campaign of thwarting the rebels, Ofelia must not only contend with the repercussions of that, but also the challenges the lie ahead of her in Pan's labyrinth.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Fans of traditional fairy tales -- whether the latter be in book, movie or some other storytelling medium -- often forget that such fantastical stories had far more grim -- make that Grimm -- origins. Usually involving girls, some sort of morality or life-learning lesson, and the occasional need for escapism and/or a magical intervention into reality, they've simultaneously frightened and entertained children for as long as they've been in existence.

One can now add "Pan's Labyrinth" to the long and illustrious list of such tales, but parents should we warned this fabulous picture isn't remotely for young kids. Filled with unspeakable violence, heavy themes, and a collection of supernatural beings that would definitely result in nightmares for any sort of impressionable minds, the film is for older teens and adults looking for a fairy tale geared for them. The result is one of the best pics from last year.

And it all comes from the creative mind of writer/director Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker who -- along with Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel") and Alfonso Cuarón ("Children of Men") -- proved that 2006 was the year of filmmaking from South of the Border (that being Mexico, not the tourist trap just below the North Carolina and South Carolina border).

Something of a companion piece to "The Devil's Backbone" (del Toro's spooky ghost flick from 2001), the film is set around the Spanish Civil War. In this case, it's right after the conflict has concluded and military types are trying to find and dispose of the remaining bands of rebels now hiding in countryside forests.

Enter Ofelia (terrifically played by Ivana Baquero), a young girl accompanying her widowed but now remarried and pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with one such military man (Sergi Lopez brilliantly portraying malevolence). He'll now be her stepfather, but is only concerned about his bloodline currently residing in the mother's uterus.

Like the kids in the "Chronicles of Narnia," Ofelia escapes into the titular fantasy world that initially seems an extension of her withdrawn imagination, but later becomes seemingly more real with each encounter (although that's smartly left in doubt at the end, a point that elicits even more questions of what's really happened).

There, she meets the title character, Doug Jones as a fabulously deceptive goat-like creature who's half-friendly, half-menacing and completely fascinating due to that very nebulousness and the actor's marvelous performance beneath all of the makeup, prosthetics, and special effects.

As the evil stepfather goes about his duty of driving out, capturing and torturing the rebel guerillas in the real world, Pan gives Ofelia the challenge of completing three tasks in the seemingly unreal one, all to prove whether she's a long-lost princess who's returned to rule their land. What follows are completely engrossing moments filled with wonder, terror and plenty of awe, thanks to del Toro's fabulously creative vision, terrific storytelling and imaginative direction.

The performances are just as good, from Baquero's threatened innocence to Jones' ambiguous creature (and another, even creepier monster) and Lopez's uber-villain who will go down as one of the meanest and most believable antagonists in all of filmdom. Supporting takes from the likes of Maribel Verdu as a rebel-sympathizing housekeeper and Ariadna Gil as the young girl's mother are similarly strong.

Since I see so many films year in and year out, most quickly evaporate from my mind. This, however, is one that imprinted its story and visuals deep into the recesses of my psyche, and it's one you won't easily forget either.

More in tune with the far darker origins of today's popular fairy tales than any sort of recent Disneyfication of them, "Pan's Labyrinth" is an utterly captivating, engrossing and disturbing film that's unlike most any other you'll see this or any other year. If you love or long for superior filmmaking, you should rush out to see it, but remember it's not for the kids. My pick for the second best cinematic offering of 2006, it rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed November 2, 2006 / Posted January 19, 2007


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