I'm not a huge fan of fantasy. In fact, I pretty much hate fantasy, a reason why extravaganzas like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter simply do not interest me. I like my stories firmly rooted in reality, which tends to be messier and more complex than parables and fables and clean fights between good and evil. Sometimes, in the hands of a master like the great Japanese animator Miyazaki, fantasy transcends its limitations and is emotionally and dramatically real. But this doesn't happen in most fantasy movies and it certainly doesn't happen, much to my chagrin, in Guillermo del Toro's Pan Labrynth.
I have been trying to understand why I disconnected from the film pretty soon after it started. I think the main reason is that, as is true in many works of this genre, none of the characters are multidimensional. They all represent something, but they are really no one. It is a credit to some of the talented actors in this film, particularly Maribel Verdú (from Y tu mamá también), that they try with all their might to infuse human verisimilitude to characters that are woefully underwritten.
The premise of the movie is potentially interesting. At the time of the Spanish Civil War, a little girl is brought to the house of a fascist captain in the woods who is still fighting the defeated Republican forces. Her mother has married this awful man and the girl, who is an avid reader of fairy tales, escapes into fantastic stories to deal with her increasingly deteriorating reality. She finds the courage to deal with the situation by inventing a fantastical quest that will have consequences in reality. So far, so good. The problem is that the Spanish Civil War was a very real bloodbath in which the Spaniards went against each other with terrible ferocity, and to this day it has left a national wound that has not really closed. If it becomes the stuff of legend, it loses its place in historical reality, which is where it should remain, in my opinion. It brought to mind that unspeakably offensive movie by Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful (give me a break), where in order to escape reality some guy clowns around in a concentration camp. Pan's Labrynth is not at all as revolting and tasteless as that, but for me, there is no room for fantasy when it comes to the history of human terror.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The intentions of Pan's Labrynth are certainly immaculate: it is supposed to be a powerful message against fascism, against those who obey without questioning, against those who hate books and imagination, against the precision and heartlessness of perfect order. But somehow, it failed to move me. Somehow it managed to make me not care about this child, and I think it was because it was too busy sending AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE. It was thoroughly devoid of wit or a sense of humor. It is a huge problem when filmmakers take themselves and their material so seriously. If they can't crack a joke, if they don't know the wonderful empathetic powers of comic relief, or at least of irony, they lose me at hello.
The fantastical creatures were not particularly engaging, and in fact, the main faun was so utterly cheesy and hammy that I resented every time he made an appearance. I disliked him intensely. This was no Puck or Ariel or any of those bona fide fairies that have a sense of mischief and a sense of humor. This was ponderous fantasy, with a solemn and important theme, and solemnity is utterly boring. Which is puzzling, because I saw Mr. Del Toro in an interview and he struck me as a smart, witty, engaging, articulate man. Sadly, little of that was in evidence in his movie.