January 18, 2007

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Panís Labyrinth (R)
Do NOT take the kids to this dark, sad and at times terrifying fairy tale about a girl who might be the reincarnation of a magical princess or might be the terrified step-child of a fascist in Panís Labyrinth.

The movieís main character is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a child of about 11. She and a little gang of fairies show up in the movieís trailer, along with other magical characters, chief among them a faun (Doug Jones) who seems part man, part deer, part tree. But do not let these images confuse you ó there is nothing kid-friendly about this tale. Though at times magical and lovely, sweet and heartbreaking, this is not a movie for anyone under 16.

Ofelia is an older child but she has held on to some of the vestiges of little girlness, mainly through her love of fairy tales. These stories of beauty and wonder are perhaps her way of coping with her difficult, painful world, which is Spain in the 1940s, after the civil war was over and Franco was solidly in command. Her father has died and her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has remarried to a tyrannical captain (Sergi Lopez). He has no interest in Ofelia and is obsessed with the child, he believes a son, Carmen is carrying. The family comes to live in an uncomfortable country estate where part of the captainís job is to find and crush the remains of the resistance. They hide in the hills above him and in his own house in the form of Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), a housekeeper who uses her status to get supplies and information to her brother in the resistance.

Ofelia stumbles on Mercedesí secret but happily keeps it, believing she has one of her own. Upon arriving at the house, sheís run into a variety of magical creatures who explain to her that she is the one-time princess of an underground realm and that if she finishes several tasks she can return to her kingdom, where her father awaits her. As her home life gets worse ó her motherís pregnancy soon becomes health-imperiling for both mother and baby ó Ofeliaís desire to regain her princess title becomes more intense and her actions more desperate.

For a movie centered around a fantasy-enthralled girl, Panís Labyrinth is shockingly brutal. Ofelia encounters dangers in her fairy land that are quite terrifying, at which point we return to the real world to see the captain further scare those around him. The aftereffects of the war become as big and as bad as a childís story monster, as deep and dark and frightening as the woods of Hansel and Gretel, with only the tiniest points of good magic (like the kindness shown to Ofelia by Mercedes) to help a heroine find her way.

This blend of the visual language of fairy tales with the visual language of war is wonderfully done and produces some artistically stunning results. The feelings of dread that little kids get when they fear a monster lives in the closet or an unnamed boogieman is waiting under the bed are conjured up for grownups by mixing scenes of carnivorous mole people with power-mad army men who can kill with impunity. The tone is perfect ó perfectly frightening ó and fits like a worn leather glove with the lush visuals, the dark story and the solid performances.

Just, please, donít take the kids. B+

Rated R for graphic violence and some language. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, Panís Labyrinth is about two hours long and is in limited release from Picturehouse. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles.