Pan’s Ups and Downs

Pan’s Labyrinth

Tea: Thyme Fennel Liquorice

I saw Pan’s Labyrinth a few years ago and wasn’t all that impressed with it back then and the fact that it was hyped up like a god-sent movie didn’t help much. Now I thought I’d watch it again with a keener eye and check whether my first impression might have been a hastened judgement. And after sitting through it again I can say that I wasn’t entirely wrong to dislike it, but I see a lot of things different. Let’s check whether this movie deserves its Metacritic score of 98.

Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia an Alice-in-Wonderland-y character in both looks and behaviour. She is staying at the camp of her stepfather together with her mother. The entire story takes place after the civil war in Spain 1944. Her mother is expecting a child, a son of course, a man like Vidal can only create pure masculinity, and all the while the people at the camp are locked in a game of hide and seek with the last remaining enemies to the Francoist regime. All of that is intertwined with the story of Ofelia who discovers a Faun creature in a labyrinth behind the house (yes, literally behind the house) which tells her of her royal origins and of three challenges she must complete so that the soul of the queen, which has probably been reincarnated within her, can return to her kingdom. A magical kingdom of elves and all that stuff. At the same time her stepfather s showing off his rude-asshole skills and excels in every category with a straight 11.


– I already got that you are copying Alice in huge portions, thank you –

So much for the plot, since this a spoiler-free review. And first I must give credit to Pan’s visual design, which is very outstanding in some departments. At some moments it becomes really obvious that CG doesn’t always age well, but those can be overlooked. The entire film is colour-coded. Military scenes are shot in a cold blue light and fantasy related scenes take place in an orange-red kind of tint. There are also scenes in between that allow for some interesting interpretations. The creature design also deserves props, mostly for the Faun and a creature called the pale man. An image that has been dragged around for a good while so I spoiler it with no shame. That is, however, pretty much all the praise I can give so far.


– Exceptional design, weak implementation, but still amazing –

The story is little more than a tool to show off all these visual design choices. There are some strong messages about fascism (thankfully without Germany for a change) and a heavy handed holocaust metaphor, but also a rather laughable attempt to paint the captain, Ofelia’s stepfather, as a demonic creature by giving him flaming wings in front of a fire-place. A joke, because the movie does little else besides establishing what a prick this guy is. His first scene might as well start with “Now introducing the villain”. And keeping in line with one-dimensional characters you can name pretty much everyone: Her mother might as well have the phrase “You’ll understand when you are older” written on her shirt, tattooed on her chest, and on a flag constantly in her hand, since that is all she ever seems to say. Ofelia is a nosy, yet upstanding kid at the start and at the end. Minor characters have more than one role, but they already had them as we met them so you can’t really speak of any development.


– Any effort in making this guy appear more evil is wasted –

Too much is sacrificed in terms of logical and characters to show off more of the visuals. Going back to the pale man. Would have been pretty boring if he never moved, wouldn’t it. But instead of writing a way he can come to live AND the characters make sense, Del Toro holds up the banner of ‘Visuals over characters’ and waves until a truly unique and creepy monster design gets placed into a hard to believe scenario. He can show off his creepiness alright, but I can’t shake the feeling of it being crowbarred in so hard the sides of my TV threaten to break. This scenes also serves as a great example that Del Toro can create outstanding visual design, but lacks and touch of subtlety. The atmosphere gets destroyed by sounds that are so loud, but apparently inaudible to the main character that it becomes laughable. And this man was to be the saviour of Silent Hill


– Proof that practical effects and make-up will always look better than CG –

Pan’s Labyrinth is in no way a bad movie, but it is also not the pinnacle of cinematographic history. The visual tone of the film is excellent and some scenes are exceptionally shot. But all of that cannot redeem the lack of subtlety and one-dimensional characters. You are now telling me that it is supposed to evoke the spirit of fairy-tales that always have one-dimensional characters, but an homage should never end up hurting the overall plot. Placing complex characters into a fairy-tale environment can be done, it was even done in game format and is called Alice: Madness Returns, a game I might return to one day. The ending of the movie is surely something that can be discussed afterwards, but in my mind is a lot shallower than it makes itself out to be. In the end Pan’s Labyrinth is an enjoyable visual ride that stays at its highest as long as you ride along and don’t think about where this cart is going or where it has been.

Image sources in order of appearance:


2 thoughts on “Pan’s Ups and Downs

  1. Noooo! I liked the movie! And I also liked Ofelia´s character because she is not without her flaws, differently from all those perfect little princesses in other fairy tales.
    Besides it is an interesting and captivating perspective on how a child might try to cope with all the violence that is going on around it, fleeing in a fantasy world that, however, reflects the threat of the real world by being dark and creepy (and dangerous) itself. The fact that she, as a child, is sacrificing herself at the end shows that war even affects the most innocent but also (and this is expressed through her self-sacrifice) that true innocence can never be killed by war, injustice or cruelty.
    For me, it is this powerful message (besides the outstanding acting of the child protagonist) that makes the film an outstanding title.


    • While I agree with you that it is nice to have a character with flaws I cannot help but think that some of these flaws are not fitting to her overall character, like that time she disregards the Faun’s advice and kills two of the faeries.
      I am not convinced about her sacrifice at the end. Since she still hands over the baby to Vidal, she could not have known the resistance is waiting outside the labyrinth. But I am willing to discuss this point.
      Other than that fully agree with your points made.


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