While the darkness of Grimm's Fairy Tales has been gradually sanitized by both the passage of time and the growing desire to shelter youngsters from the cruelty of the outside world, Guillermo del Toro has cut away the safety net woven by the overprotective powers that be to craft an intoxicating and original fable with the power to simultaneously enchant and repulse. After seemingly perfecting the melding of historical fact and imaginative fantasy with The Devil's Backbone, a horrified del Toro realized that whatever he thought he knew about war and death had been immediately rendered void when, just two days after the film made its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, the world was forever changed along with the New York skyline. In the aftermath, the filmmaker would escape grim reality by crafting an entertaining pair of CG-heavy Hollywood actioners that, despite outward appearances, still weren't entirely devoid of the political commentary expressed in his most serious-minded work. Now, after proving that he is capable of producing a slick hit despite a frustrating false start in blockbuster-land, del Toro has returned with a companion piece to The Devil's Backbone (a "sister" film in the director's own terms) which delves headlong into the subjects of fascism, brutality, and innocence with an insight he simply didn't have before the modern world plunged into darkness. Just as a film such as The Devil's Backbone couldn't have existed with the Spanish Civil War, a film such as Pan's Labyrinth couldn't exist without the apocalyptically titled War on Terror.
It would be impossible to tell a tale as brutal as Pan's Labyrinth without the balance of great beauty, and in the lens of cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, del Toro has found a collaborator capable of carrying his ambitious vision. The composition, color, and stylistic texture of Pan's Labyrinth suggest a fevered child's hallucinatory interpretation of an amalgamation of fairy tales. Of course, in order to achieve such a dramatic effect, the frame demands to be filled not only with phantasmagorical imagery but an exceptional selection of talent as well, and in Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, and Doug Jones, del Toro has found the ideal cast. The initial innocence and subsequent shattering of a young girl who gradually comes to comprehend the inhumanity that surrounds her is heart-wrenchingly realized by Baquero, while Lopez inspires fierce loathing from his initial appearance and Verdú beautifully embodies the spirit of furtive, gentle righteousness right up until the moment she unleashes the fury that has been silently building inside. In his duel roles as the playfully menacing titular faun and the downright terrifying Pale Man, formally trained mime and noted contortionist Doug Jones continues the collaboration with del Toro that began with Mimic to striking effect. If there is truly a modern heir to the Karloff throne, it is almost certainly Jones, whose chameleon-like ability to disappear into a character allows him to instill them the kind of depth and personality that would be near impossible to achieve with even the most advanced computer-generated creation. From del Toro's perfectly balanced screenplay to his assured skills as a visual storyteller, the fearless performances of an immensely talented cast, the sleepy lullaby that forms the foundation of Javier Navarrete's score, and special effects that have the power to dazzle and horrify, all the elements in Pan's Labyrinth fall beautifully into place to form an genuinely affecting adult fairy tale.