Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

This is somewhat the second of a themed pair.

One of the more popular story-telling devices in current use is to take the threads of seemingly unrelated plots and tell them interchangeably, until the relationship between the threads is made clear. The movie Crash is a good example of this type of structure; in speculative fiction, Iain Banks and Steven Erikson have mastered it in their works. Guillermo del Toro's most recent movie, Pan's Labyrinth, purports to do the same kind of thing. One plot thread deals with the last days of the Spanish Revolution, as we follow the story of Ofelia going to meet her step-father, a captain in the Spanish National Army trying to quash a cell of revolutionaries in the hills. The second story also involves Ofelia, as she discovers that she is the long lost princess of a fantasy underworld kingdom; to return to her rightful place, she must complete three supernatural tasks.

While Ofelia is the common element that binds these two threads together in the movie's tapestry, something is missing from the structure that is being attempted. In the first place, Ofelia is not an important part of the Spanish Revolution thread; most of the events that take place do not involve her and she knows nothing about them. In the second, there needs to be something more than a character to tie the threads up in any sort of satisfying way; there should be some sort of unity in thematics or meaning, a commonality that is wholly missing from Pan's Labyrinth.

The revolution thread is a fairly standard war story; no new ground is covered by the movie. In fact, the events of the revolution plot are entirely, and sadly, predictable. Of course there is a traitor in the captain's camp, and of course, as soon as that traitor is uncovered, the rebels start their last big push. The images are as graphic as the best war pictures being made today, and I'm not altogether sure that's a good thing in this case. If this was just a movie about the war, it would be critically roasted as derivative and no one would care to see the movie.

Sadly, the fantasy thread is terribly sparse, not really fleshed out with the possibilities inherent in a fairly standard fantasy trope. Neither are the scenes in that plot very exceptional either, actually perhaps somewhat less interesting than the best efforts in the fantasy genre recently. Doug Jones is fairly impressive as the faun, and none can doubt his acting ability as his real persona is hidden by tremendous prosthetics. But the fantasy here is the fantasy of the original Grimm stories; it is brutal and vicious and not particularly tidy. I could deal with unappetizing fare, if I knew it was going to lead to something greater than the parts, but this fantastic brutality is fetched up beside the war scenes, and it just makes for what quickly becomes an unrelentingly brutal picture.

And so I am left wondering if I missed something. Critics around the world are hailing Pan's Labyrinth as the work of genius, but at its end, I only find two unrelated plots, mediocre on their own, and downright frustrating as they are interwoven. What was gained from the intertwining of these two narratives, especially since each offers very little as reflections or sounding boards for the other thread. Even more unconscionable, to me at least, is the movie's suggestion that the fantastic elements are not true at all, but the imaginings of a scared young girl. But this reading of the movie falls apart, because Ofelia has nothing to fear for most of the movie, and the fantastic tasks she performs have effects in the real world that persist after she has completed them. What is gained then by hinting half-heartedly that the narrative for half the movie is broken? And what have all the critics who have celebrated this movie seen that I cannot see? Why is this considered good cinema when it certainly was nowhere near as good as Children of Men, which in turn has gotten very little press at all.

One of my movie companions, who admittedly has strict taste, expected a far different movie from the one we saw, given the high praise heaped upon the movie. She is convinced that no one has the strength of their conviction to tell the emperor he is wearing no clothes. Her husband, whose opinion (like his wife's) I lean upon when making decisions about what movies to see, felt that the movie is another entry into the field of "war is hell." My own opinion lies somewhere between these, and I circle back to my thoughts for the first ten minutes after I walked out--what did I miss? What connection ties the two threads together to lift this movie beyond merely experimental and flawed film-making? There is no cinematographical genius on display with this movie; neither is the acting much above mundane. I'd like to give the film-maker credit for trying something new, but what was attempted by the combining of these two stories is beyond me. And so this movie has become, in my mind, a film example of the phenomenon of Bradbury's novels. People who are paid to tell me what is good have exalted these subjects of their review, and I just can't see it. And I wonder how many people are disappointed by the books or the movie, but have convinced themselves that they should like it just because "smarter" people, professional reviewers, have told them that they should.

So, until someone can explain to me why this is a great movie, I'd recommend staying away from it. And if it takes someone to explain it, I'm not sure I can recommend it once it all gets sorted out.

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