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Pan’s Labyrinth Pan

[NOTE: There are no plot spoilers in what follows, although I do talk about the general balance of the elements of the movie. I also assume you know the movie’s basic premise, as explained in any capsule review of it.]

Pan’s Labyrinth wasn’t simply not as good as I’d expected. I actually think it’s not good. Put differently: It’s a bad movie. In my opinion.

From the reviews and promotional interviews, I expected it to have two threads that reflect on one another: a story about the Spanish Civil War and a girl’s escape into a fairy tale world. In fact, this is a war story with a few occasional and relatively brief fantasy interludes. Neither story is worth watching.

The war story is hideously violent. Disgustingly even sadistically violent. But so is war, so this might be appropriate, except that the war story is also hideously cliched and shallow. The bad guy is one-dimensional. The brave freedom fighters manage to be even less than that. They are The Brave Hero, The Feisty Heroine, The Guy Who Stutters, The Rest of the Guys. The ending is very movie-ish. If the war story were shown without the fantasy elements, it’d be laughed out of town (except for the parts where audience is gagging).

The fantasy segments are, frankly, not all that original or interesting either. The characters are stock, which I’m sure is the point since they come from the imagination of an eleven-year-old. (There is one baddy who does something cool with eyeballs, although it will be familiar to kids who watched Nickelodeon’s Real Monsters cartoons.) But that doesn’t make it any better for the audience. If the fantasy segments were shown without the war story, they’d make a not all that arresting short subject. (The girl, Ivana Baquero, is a fabulous actor, though.)

Ah, but these two stories are intertwined, you say. They reflect on one another. The girl’s escape into fantasy is oh-so-poignant because of the violence of the world around her. The violence breaks through our softening of it via stories. That’s the theory, anyway. But it didn’t work for me. The fantasy didn’t intensify, illuminate or condition the war story. The war story was so cartoon-y already that the fantasy couldn’t touch it.

My wife and son both really liked it. It got an almost unprecedented 96% positives at RottenTomatoes . So, I’m probably wrong. But, heck, that’s what we have blogs for: To be wrong in public. [Tags: ]

31 Responses to “Pan’s Labyrinth Pan”

  1. Totally agree with you!

  2. Desagree with you!

    Very good film.

  3. Wonderful film.

  4. I, too, was disappointed by the film. It seemed to retread the same themes and make use of the same elements (the Spanish Civil War, juxtaposition of industrial war machines with children’s fantasy and folk superstitions) that del Toro employed more subtly in The Devil’s Backbone. Sure, the special effects were more impressive here, but they looked like they’d been borrowed from Matthew Barney.

    In short: there seemed to be nothing new in the film. Not terrible, certainly, but not terribly original either. Certainly not worthy of the praise the critics have been piling on it.

    I will employ the film-snob signoff, and state that I prefer his earlier stuff: Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, even Blade 2.

  5. Thanks! This expressed all my problems with the film! I’m still at a loss as to why it is so well liked!

  6. I’m glad to find someone with eyes open!
    I agree with your writing.

    I just cannot understand why people like this movie. I think it was one of the worst movies I’ve seen for a long time.
    The story was totally empty…maybe because the characters just were so on the surface or something…
    I don’t know…
    something really important was missing from this movie.

    I just feel sick because of all the pointless violence…

  7. i think you got the point all wrong – although it is no less depressing. the fantasy was the belief in higher powers/beings and that they are – in the end – only fairy tales. there is also a strong refernce to the holocaust. i think the directors strong feelings of gd as well as his opinion of all evil in the world – signified by the holocaust – are made very clear.

  8. No, I completely agree, this film isn’t what I thought it was going to be either, and frankly, it really doesn’t deserve all the positive reviews it’s been receiving. I think the cinematography and the fantasy characters were beautiful, but beyond that I have very few good things to say about this film, not to mention it left me feeling emotionally numb, and completely depressed by the end. Maybe it’s my own love of fantasy that makes this movie work against my favor in this situation. I went into art because I wanted to bring fantasy to life, and well, this film ends with the idea that the faery realm is one we can only experience through death. In other words, it’s just another name for heaven. The film did not leave me feeling hopeful. I felt as though what was conveyed to me was tranquility through defeat, and although there is light to be seen in a beautiful after life, why must we sacrifice our imaginations during our stay on earth? I am certainly no Puritan.

    I was set up to see a film with a cast of fantastical creatures, a labyrinth of hidden secrets, adventure, rebellion, faith, surprises… but the surprises never came, well, not the kind you would hope for, but if this was Del Toro’s intention, well, then what else is there to say, other than, “congrats!” Still, I agree with everyone that the violence in this film was way over the top and unnecessary. There are a hundred ways to tell a story, an idea…why choose the one that is most dysfunctionally detached from the point?

  9. (plot spoilers below)

    I am so happy to find this blog. My husband & I both disliked this movie intensely. Our understanding was it was the next big thing in fantasy. What? How do critics claim this? The fantasy was less than half of the movie, and the war story was over the top in horrific violence. The only emotion the characters drew from me was constant fear – fear for the child (started when her shoes were dirtied on task 1), and it grew from there. I did not find the special effects anything to write home about. And to try & claim the storyline is written from Ofelia’s point of view is ridiculous when she was not even witness to most of the war storyline. To top if off, there were illogical decisions made. Why, if the rebel soldiers had such explosives, would they use the key to get into the shed? How obviously stupid is that? Why would Mercedes only wound the Captain, and not kill him when she had the chance? How could the Captain survive such stab wounds & only need to dress the facial wound? Why was a point made of Mercedes noticing the chalk door when she searches for Ofelia in her room near the end, and then nothing more is done with it?

    A supreme disappointment for both my husband & myself. There are few movies that leave a mark on me for horrific & gratuitous violence. The Accused, Cape Fear (remake) & now this one can join the club. This should be reclassified as “horror”, not “fantasy”. It is very disheartening that it is receiving the accolades it has gotten.

  10. I am so thankful someone agrees with me. Over the top violence and a total lack of any kind of intense fantasy left me feeling glad that I didn’t pay for it.

  11. I too was so emotionally slammed by this film.
    However, the people I was with insisted on leaving and I want to know how it ended. Could you tell me? I left at the point where Mercedes was being questioned. I figure she is killed and also the little girl probably dies. I know she took the sleeping medicine with her. From the reviews I guess she kills herself and ends up in that world.
    What a drag! Could have been so good!

  12. I am shocked at the negative reviews. Though I often find that I do not like very popular movies, I found this one to be stunning. I felt as if I were totally drawn into the story, i.e., that I had “lived” it. As dark as the movie was, it made be glad to be living in a world where such art can be made.

  13. I totally disagree with you. You are making a big mistake for taking that movie as the next Lord of the Rings. It has nothing to do with it.

    The film is beautiful and something new in a sea of heroic fantasies and hollywood crap that we are watching in the last years.
    For once I’m agree with the critics.

    And for all that were “shocked” by the violence…. go watch some Disney’s or Oprah…

  14. Ahahaahaha! Come now, Disney is violent, and Oprah can definitely be scary. :P Personally, I love some good old violence, but usually when it works together with the plot. Maybe this time people are shocked because it was disjointed, and placed randomly, unexpectedly…

  15. Oh, not more “violence haters”. The violence was an essential part of the story! There was a war going on (in case you didn’t notice) and no, war is not happy. Neither is the story of Pan’s Labyrinth. TsH is right, put on the Little Mermaid or something next time, instead of going to see a movie with actual depth.

  16. I totally agree with your post – I found this film shallow and Disney-esque, when not ridiculously melodramatic and manipulative.

  17. did anyone really believe that this movie was rooted in an honest take on childhood, or suffering, or anything at all? it felt like a series of evasions and half-truths to me, dressed up as something deeply felt. some pretty scenes, and the girl was sweet. that’s about it…i wanted to like the movie but it left me cold.

    i felt so completely out of it when i left the movie; does no one else think this is pretty poor stuff, relative to the reviews? i did a search hoping i wasn’t utterly alone and found this blog. thanks …

  18. I agree with your review of the movie to a certain extent.I wanted to see this movie so bad.It was nothing like I expected.While watching I thought I was sitting through “Saving Pvt.Ryan”.I craved more fantasy.While I didn’t expect to see the usual Hollywood “everyone lives happily ever after ending”I left feeling somewhat dissappointed.I ultimately think it was a good movie,I was left feeling a little (shell-shocked).

  19. thank you all for showing me that i’m not the only one who thinks this film is quite misguided and overrated. before seeing it tonight i had already seen the metacritic 98% overall score, nd heard nothing but superlatives about this film, so it’s hard to separate the film itself from my expectations of it. but i was very disappointed.

    i have no problem with violence in film: some of my favourite films are apocalypse now and titus, both unremittingly, excruciating violent. but in this movie, a supposed “fairy tale for adults” the violence serves no end other than to show us how small children must understandably break from reality in order to escape it.

    the girl’s fantasy world was not fleshed out at all, showing that del torro is not concerned with the beauty in the hearts of young girls, but with the disgusting violence that men (or in this case, cartoonishly evil men) are capable of.

    a fairy tale should involve moral choices, dillemas that exemplify the journey of the human soul. the main character is just a cypher here; she makes no choices. why does she eat the grapes? who cares? it was cool to see that thing come to life.

    can anyone tell me what the moral of this film is?

  20. All of you out there, lovers and haters, need to do Guillermo del Toro the service of listening to his informative, very insightful commentary. All your questions answered, even those of you who think the violence serve no purpose.

    I have found an even greater respect for his film after spending an hour and fifty minutes taking in every justification for his work.

    If you’re not a fan of his genius after that, you never will be.

  21. It always amazes me how people keep insisting that War be portrayed so realistically and graphically, so that we can “smell” the blood and gun smoke in the room. We all need to know how “horrible” war is right? Somehow if we can live through what these soldiers suffered through we are supposed to learn our lesson?
    However all I see is America in another war, despite us all sitting through “saving private Ryan” we still voted republican (well I didn’t, but you know what I mean). All that seems to happen is that we all get completely desensitized.
    I love this blog. I agree with it. And, despite the violence, this film simply lacked good movement and the end was COMPLETELY anti-climactic. She dies, she gets what she wants. The end. Bravo on such a mind blowing way to end a film. Sheesh!

  22. Sorry to write in Spanish, but if a can read and write in english may be you also can understand Spanish :-) Cheers!
    Pense que la pelicula era muy fuerte, muy cruel, que a uno lo dejaba con mal sabor de voca apesar de ser buena… Pero todo lo contrario, una excelente historia, real y sin exageraciones, menos curel que las peliculas que vemos todos los dias estilo Rambo o terminator.. una combinacion muy buena de la realidad y de la fantasia de una nina.. uno quisiera creer que la fantasia es realidad y que la realidad es fantasia…

  23. I’ve seen plenty of excellent but violent films in my life, and never has a film disturbed me the way this one did. I agree that the violence was gratuitous and intended to shock more than it was used to storytell. Why else would we need to watch the villain stitch up his face, or the mother to be torn up by this bloody, cursed pregnancy…only to die on her daughter and leave us empty. Why did I dislike this so much? I felt like my emotions were played with in a nasty way. I kept rooting for a real mother-daughter relationship to prevail, only to find there wasn’t one in sight — unless you count some strange underworld babe perched upon a 35-foot-high pedestal in the last scene. How bizarre! At least when I watched Nicholas get strung up in “The Last King of Scotland,” I felt there was a reason for the violence — telling the story of Idi Amin’s ludicracy and cruelty. But this? I’m surprised the reception has been as positive as it has been.

  24. I was terribly diappointed with this film, having heard the rave reviews from all the people who know me and my love of film about the Spanish Civil War. There is, in fact, a language, as it were, particular to this genre, and while El laberinto does, to some degree, employ this language, it does a tremendous disservice to its filmatic predecessors by its heavy-handed treatment of the fairy tale/myth as allegory and its two-dimensional portrayals of the human characters of the story. Capitan Vidal and the Republican maqui rebels occupy much of the story and much screen time is devoted to the supremely unrealistic stupidity of every decision they make. The recklessness of la criada (Verdu) makes no sense either; if she valued any of the lives around her, she would have acted with far more cunning and self-control.
    The violence of the film wasn’t objectionable per se; it was just so terribly out of place. I didn’t believe for one minute that Vidal was as brutal as he was written to be, because his story didn’t jibe. Was his psychotic obsession with his father’s stopwatch and the “tres generaciones” a reference to Franco and his own generational obsession? Too obscure, then, for the wider audience, and if not, the meaning was lost so we simply didn’t care. No one has to tell us that war is hell; we all know it and we’re well aware of the brutalities committed in the name of it. The violence here felt over the top because it was overcompensating for what wasn’t there to begin with: a good screenplay and tight, confident, informed direction.
    Some of the film’s fairy tale elements were wonderful, however; kudos to Doug Jones for being the thrillingly scariest thing in the story, not just due to his gruesome appearance but because his brilliant acting never allowed us to be sure of his character’s intentions or predilections.
    What really disappointed me was the film’s ending. How does Sr. del Toro justify his final message–that for those who knew how to read them, signs of hope could be found here and there–to a nation of Spaniards who would go on to endure 35 years of crippling fascist dictatorship (the film being set in 1944)?
    What still mystifies me is how del Toro went from an intriguing if imperfect Civil War ghost story in El espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone) to an ambient-but-empty Civil War fairy tale some 10 years later.
    I guess I was destined to dislike this film, if for no other reason than the mere fact that it’s set in Spain and has much to do with the War. I have come to understand good filmatic storytelling within this genre through the eyes, ears and voices of directors like Victor Erice, Jose Luis Cuerda, Carlos Saura and Julio Medem. I had thought del Toro was on his way with El espinazo. I guess I’m simply disappointed that he wasn’t able to carry on the legacy of the greats who he clearly and rightly strives to emulate.

  25. I think this was the most well made film I have ever seen. All history and fantasy rules aside, every shot artistically evoked an intense emotion. Del Toro tells this fantastic, “Alice in Wonderland” story, where Ofelia’s imagination is the only thing that can save her from 1944 spanish politics. 7 years later Disney makes a cartoon about a girls fantasy world that is the only thing that can hurt her.

  26. I missed this movie in the theaters and was upset about that, so I patiently waited for Netflix to arrive. During this wait I kept seeing nothing but praise and eagerly and impatiently waited for this to arrive. When release date for the DVD finally came, the wife convinced me that we should just buy the movie, how could so many people be wrong?

    So, we abandoned the netflix rental and bought it yesterday, release day. (I realize this is always a dumb decision, to buy before you try). And man.. did we pay for it. I agree with everything the original Poster said.

    My wife and I were pretty dissapointed with the film in general. We kept waiting for moments that would really allow us to reflect on ourselves, or the messege being given.

    We like movies that challenge thought or provoke creative thinking (See: The Fountain, for example) but Pan’s Labyrinth just didn’t provide. There was no mystery, no tension, and virtually no story. We could not believe how so many critics could rave about so many things of this film when clearly it was lacking in so many places. I spent more time trying to figure out if I was supposed to like the movie or not, than enjoying it. I kept asking myself.. “Wait for it, there’s a reason so many people are raving about the movie” but that moment never came.

    It really makes me wonder and guess what kind of people these are that acclaim this movie so highly, as if they have so little imagination that this movie, to them, was entirely groundbreaking.

    This all may sound harsh. The movie did have some good elements in it. and by comparison, is certainly better than recent trash allowed in theaters (say, complete garbage such as Eragon). I might have been satisfied with this movie had it been advertised for what it really was, an average 2/4 star violent war movie with very mild fantasy elements.

  27. I agree with most of what has been said here, however I do think this film is better than most of the drudge Hollywood puts out these days. My main problem with the film is that search as I might I couldnt find any hidden meaning/connection between the fantasy world and girls experiences in the real one. The Mandrake root in the milk with the two drops of blood for instance, what did it signify and why was it keeping her mother alive? All that being said I would not characterize this as a bad film, but certainly not the ‘Masterpiece’ must-see that the critics have made it out to be.

  28. Ridiculous. That sort of graphic brutality is NEVER necessary in a movie – especially one that appears to be a “fantasy” story (I’ll make an exception for Saving Private Ryan, but at least then everyone knows what they’re getting into).

    The true masters of moviemaking can get the point across without subjecting us to a closeup of smashing in a kid’s face until it caves in. I am sick and tired of being revolted and upset in movies. I don’t want to be traumatized by a movie. The violent trend these days in movies is horrifying. Like so many other movies in recent years, I turned this movie off after it turned my stomach. Sure, you can tell me I’m more sensitive than most, and that the majority of movie-goers are desensitized to the point that they need the excessive shocking violence to feel anything at all…but I find that fact equally disturbing.

  29. I was relieved to read comments like Ed’s, above. I watched Pan’s Labyrinth because I’d heard it was stunning. And yes, visually it was, plus complex, thought-provoking and moving in places. But the eruptions of violence were so stomach-churning that I watched whole chunks of the movie (on my laptop) with the screen almost shut, the sound off and my finger over the FF button. I only kept going, with a cold sweaty brow and nausea in my belly, out of a dogged desire to know how it would end.
    I wish I had known how bloody this film was. I can’t believe the issue wasn’t raised in more reviews – but then that goes to show how blase critics are now. I tend to scout reviews for mention of graphic violence because I have a real problem with it. It’s because the images stay with me forever – but that’s all they do; they don’t make me think or question anything, and any merits in the movie are overshadowed by the memory of how sick I felt watching it. I understand that equally brutal things happen in life; I don’t need them splattered all over the screen to weep over that. And I didn’t come away from this film musing on the brutalities of war, fascist dictatorship etc, only the brutality of the film, which left me feeling terrorised. To me, showing violent close-ups of appalling suffering and pain represent a complete failure of the filmmaker’s imagination. I think Del Toro got so caught up in the cleverness of his allegories that he forgot the human element. Apart from the casual brutality meted out by Vidal, making Ofelia witness her mother’s gory near-miscarriage then bloodbath-childbirth was just unpleasant in the extreme. I lost faith in the movie at that point.

    Maybe I should toughen up but I’m agog that we live in a world where Janet Jackson’s partially exposed breast on TV can spark national outrage in the US, yet mainstream films (of varying degrees of artistic merit) can peddle nauseating, realistic violence and no-one bats an eyelid.

  30. It seems like there are many mixed reviews about this movie. I personally liked it for its ability to mix harsh reality with the escape to mystery. It isn’t simply a didactic screenplay which I’m sure many viewers are used to. but the fact remains that it stirs all this emotion whether you loved it or hated it which is, in a sense, an accomplishment

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