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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


For weeks, I had been hearing raves about Panís Labyrinth. The Spanish-language film opened only in a small handful of major cities back in December. Many of my big city colleagues in the Online Film Critics Society couldnít stop praising the movie, while the rest of us groused about having to wait until it opened in wider release. Several Oscar nominations have speeded that process along, bringing Panís to 1,082 screens across the U.S. this first week of February. Thatís extremely rare for a foreign-language picture that doesnít feature any martial arts action. Fortunately, we have things like awards nominations to give movies such as this a boost. Panís Labyrinth is bold and original, a mini-masterpiece of fantasy filmmaking that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

Set in 1940's Spain, the story centers around a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) whose father was killed. Her mother, more out of desperation than love, has remarried a fascist military captain named Vidal (Sergi Lopez) and become pregnant. The pregnancy is making her sick, but Vidal believes that a child should be born wherever its father is, so he forces them to come live with him at an outpost. It doesnít take long for Ofelia to see how evil the guy is. He likes to dominate her mother, boss around his housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), and brutally torture his enemies. Since the wooded area around the outpost hides a legion of rebels, Vidal finds no shortage of people to torture.

To deal with the horror she sees around her, the book-happy Ofelia creates a fantasy world in her imagination after wandering into a complex labyrinth on the outpost grounds. She first encounters a talking faun named Pan (Doug Jones), who tells her that she is the fabled queen of a mystical realm. In order to reclaim her title, she must complete a series of tasks. One involves procuring a key from a giant frog; from there she must go through a magical door and open a lock, all while avoiding a demonic creature with eyeballs in the palm of his hands.

Itís clear that the fantasies are fueled by Ofeliaís immediate surroundings, coupled with her own unhappiness at having this monster as her stepfather. Whatís most interesting is that Ofelia takes very specific real things and builds them into her dreams. For example, when sent to bed without dinner as punishment, she imagines being tempted by the forbidden fruit on a demonís dinner table. Her unborn sibling is represented in her mind by a ďmagicĒ root, which she hides under the bed and whose fate rises and falls with the pregnancyís complications. There are probably a dozen other symbolic examples you can pick out. Whatever Ofelia witnesses is absorbed, then turned into something else in her imagination. Writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Blade 2) does a masterful job contrasting the grim, harsh realities of life with Captain Vidal and the girlís fanciful interpretation of them. At its soul, Pan's Labyrinth is all about how children deal with confusing things in the adult world. Ofelia can't cope with her villainous stepfather, so she creates weird, scary creatures that represent his evil, then anoints herself a potential queen charged with fighting that evil. As Vidalís acts grow increasingly heinous, the intensity of her fantasy also increases.

Guillermo del Toro has had practice creating imaginary worlds that you can get lost in, and he demonstrates that skill again here. The creatures Ė from the faun, to the eye demon, to a shape-shifting insect Ė are brilliantly created, both visually and conceptually. They are not merely cool creatures; they become as real to us as to Ofelia because we understand that they represent something significant. Not once did I dismiss their presence as mere fantasy. In fact, I literally tensed in my seat as the girl tries to outrun a pursuing demon in one particularly hypnotic scene.

As others have already said, Pan's Labyrinth is really a fairy tale for adults. It has fantastic visual effects and creatures, but also a story that is rich with meaning. While much of the movie is visually dark and gloomy, there is an abrupt (and effective) shift to brilliant color at the end, when the genuine point of the story becomes clear. Fairy tales traditionally come with a moral, and del Toroís story has a powerful moral that speaks to issues of selflessness and bravery in the face of genuine evil. Though itís cloaked in fantasy, the moral is as timeless as it is affecting.

Due to adult themes and some very graphic violence, this particular fairy tale is definitely not for children. However, grown-ups with strong imaginations will appreciate how this girl's fantasies help her get through a nightmarish experience. Framing the situation in her own terms is Ofeliaís only means of hanging on. Itís not so great for her, but for the audience, it provides intelligent, creative, and ultimately moving entertainment.

( 1/2 out of four)

Pan's Labyrinth is rated R for graphic violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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