I fell into a trap with Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Pan’s Labyrinth. I allowed myself to be wooed by the gorgeous visuals and Alice in Wonderland approach to style and narrative shown in the trailer.

Like a child waiting for Christmas to arrive and with another excruciating three week wait until the big day, I impulsively ordered the DVD from the States before its release on South African soil. I wanted, no … needed, to see the film that had garnered three Academy awards and had critics in unity concerning its splendour.

My impulsiveness, unfortunately, was not rewarded in the manner in which I had hoped. Rather than being swept away by a story of pure escapism I was shown a serious and brutal drama that only occasionally dipped its toes into the realm of fantasy.

Before I am attacked from all sides for “slating” one of last year’s best films I must say that this is certainly not my intention. Pan’s Labyrinth is a good film, beautifully filmed and realised, but one that falls short of the glory it seems to have attained worldwide. Now, you might argue that this is simply the post-hype experience talking (nothing can ever be as good as we hope it will be, right?) as opposed to a rational and thought out response but I was so under-whelmed that I had to (and did) give the film another watch. I, myself, was hoping I had missed something but my initial reaction was spot on.

When Oefilia (Ivana Baquero) and her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) are brought to the Spanish countryside by her new stepfather (Sergi López), a captain in the army, she is offered an opportunity to escape the ravages of the Spanish Civil War. It is hoped that the change in environment will benefit Oefilia’s pregnant mom and help her carry to term safely.

Captain Vidal’s country cottage, however, has been set up as a command post in order to drive out and eliminate rebels living in the surrounding hills. With the maniacal captain ruling the cottage with brutality and no compassion, Oefilia soon finds herself – guided by a fairy – escaping into a labyrinth behind the house.

Pan’s Labyrinth is – much like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – a film that embraces the world of imagination and shows how the mind adjusts in order to cope with circumstances that are often too overwhelming for an individual to cope with. Oefilia’s situation is certainly stark, with her father having been killed during the war, but I never got the impression that she had undergone anything horribly traumatic. Her love for reading may have provided an earlier escape/shelter but Pan’s Labyrinth needed to provide a defining experience that opened the door to the world of fantasy. For things simply to start happening upon Oefilia’s arrival in the country is somewhat weak.

I’m not denying that her past experiences could have been a catalyst to her imagination coming to life but some indication of this visually would have strengthened the film’s connection to the fantastic. I was continually looking for a more solid link between the film’s reality and Oefilia’s constructed universe.

The secret world of the labyrinth is (as I’m sure you’ve seen) amazing and showcases some of the best creature designs I have ever seen on screen – the Pale Man taking the top prize. Doug Jones, who plays Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and the Silver Surfer in the latest Fantastic Four outing, brings to life the film’s title character – as well as the Pale Man – in great fashion. It’s a pity then that we get to see so little of them. Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t feel like a labyrinth so much as it does a set of three rooms with a single task locked within each. I wanted to get lost (that’s what one usually does in a labyrinth) but was only teased before being kicked out.

Captain Vidal makes it into my top five meanest-bad-guys-of-all-time category and is, after the glorious visual effects, the second highlight of Pan’s Labyrinth. Shooting, smashing-in people’s faces and torturing his way throughout the film he can proudly stand tall with villains such as Clarence Boddicker (Robocop) and The Kurgan (Highlander).

Pan’s Labyrinth is a violent film and I guess this might be considered by some to be the stimulus that brings about the world of fantasy. I can certainly see how it might be for an audience (things get very bloody) but Oefilia, again, is never directly involved with any of it.

Del Toro is a master filmmaker and Pan’s Labyrinth easily reaffirms my opinion that Spanish-speaking directors are the best filmmakers working in cinema today. However, the film suffers from an uneven balance between its supernatural elements and the natural world shown on screen. I was looking for greater things from the former.

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