Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, also known as El Laberinto del Fauno is a very dark and very violent fantasy. It is brilliantly imaginative and filled with astonishing imagery. Yet I never warmed to it.
I think the problem is in the “magical realism” which in this case involves too little magic and too much realism. The net result is more repellent than inspiring. It may well be that this is the effect that del Toro was trying to achieve, but it doesn’t work for me.
The year is 1944. The Spanish Civil War is long over, but a small band of partisans still holds out in the northern mountains. The ruthless Capitán Vidal (Sergi López) is determined to flush them out and exterminate them. He establishes his headquarters in an isolated old mill, next to a mysterious ancient labyrinth filled with strange old pagan carvings.
For reasons that make sense only to him, he sends for his pregnant wife and stepdaughter to join him. The stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is drawn to the labyrinth. There she meets some strange creatures who tell her that she is a lost princess with a special mission.
Many reviewers seem to think that it is an open question whether Ofelia is just suffering from delusions brought on by her concern for her mother and the baleful influence of her evil stepfather. No doubt every fantasy movie ever made can be neatly explained by assuming that the viewpoint character is mentally ill and we are just watching his or her hallucinations. In a few cases that is clearly the intention, but I don’t think that is the case here. If it were it would make the film even bleaker than it is, saying in effect that the real world is so terrible that only those who cannot endure it are really sane. But that clearly isn’t the intention since not everything that happens is hopeless. Also some of the magic has obvious effects on the real world, implying that it isn’t all in Ofelia’s head.
I’m rather sorry that I didn’t like this more since there is so much talent involved. It is not so much that it is dark, it is just that so much of it is ugly and unpleasant, and there isn’t enough of a sense of wonder.
It is amusing to think that if Guillermo del Toro were Japanese he would probably have made this as an anime, and I would probably have liked it a great deal more. (Of course such a film could never be shown in American movie theaters, because everyone would bring their five-year-olds to watch it, even with an “R” rating.) A story like this would probably be greatly improved if it were told in a more abstract and less realistic manner.