When I was in Lancaster not long ago I took the opportunity to use some vouchers I’d had for some time. I headed to HMV with the vouchers which were good for five sterling and had a good look for a DVD priced at no more than that. It took a while to find anything I was interested in at that price but I was very tempted by an animated film adaptation of Appleseed, a manga written by Shirow Masamune who wrote Ghost in the Shell, the subject of my last book review. In the end though I went for this fantasy masterpiece from Guillermo Del Toro.
Sometimes writing reviews of things seems a little futile. Chances are you’ve heard of Pan’s Labyrinth and even if you haven’t seen it you know it’s very well thought of based on what other reviewers have said. It’s difficult to know what I can add that hasn’t already been said before. The answer is probably nothing but I have to delve into what I take from film experiences particularly. The most obvious thing to me is that Pan’s Labyrinth boasts just about the most loathable villain of any film I’ve seen.
Creating villains that are easy to hate shouldn’t be difficult, they’re the bad guys, we’re supposed to despise them, but somehow most of the most famous movie villains end up being revered. Everybody loves Darth Vader, the Joker, General Zod etc. and with good reason, they’re all awesome. If a storyteller can create a scene-stealing villain they occasionally become more popular than the heroes they fight against. The key, therefore, to making a hateful villain is to take away anything likeable, cool or human about them. This is what has happened with Captain Vidal, he is a cold, merciless, brutal, fascist bastard and we really detest him for it.
For those of you that don’t know the film is set in 1944 Spain where freedom fighters are desperately combating the fascists, an unusual setting for a fantasy film but one that works extremely well. The heroine is the fanciful Ofelia, a girl charmed by fairytale whose pregnant mother has recently remarried, Captian Vidal being the groom and father of the unborn baby. They travel to join the captain at his mountain post where his men are trying to root out a pocket of guerilla resistance. Soon after arrivinf Ofelia meets Pan, a faun with a proposition. If she can accomplish the tasks he sets for her she can take her place as the princess of the undergorund kingdom he serves. The story intertwines the soldiers’ conflict with the rebels and Ofelia’s adventures into fantasy.
As fantasy goes this falls under the heading of ‘grotesque’, not something I’m particularly fond of in fantasy but it works well here. Ofelia’s tasks see her infiltrating slimy holes and secret rooms packed with giant bugs and revolting monsters the most memorable, and terrifying of which is a bald, humanoid freak who keeps his eyes in his palms and snacks on fairies. These sequences carry an assured and well-realised visual style that never distracts from what’s going on outside. The biggest monster, naturally is Vidal who thinks nothing of crushing a man’s face for no reason and taunting his victims before he tortures them. When he gets a taste of his own medicine it’s a moment that could invoke cheers.
It’s not exactly a cheerful movie either, the whole cast seems to suffer on some level and the moon is distictly meloncholy as epitomised by the film’s recurring musical theme, a haunting lulluby, isially hummed to heart-rending effect. The brutality is mixed with a sense of mystery and peril and the cast all shine without exception.
An unrelenting yet strangely touching dark fairytale that reminds us that the darkest nightmares of our imagination are overshadowed by real life evil. The kind of theme that you don’t forget whether or not you enjoy it.