Impish skittering insect fairies, horned Jean Cocteau–<\d>spawned romantic beasts, lascivious frogs that make Jabba the Hutt seem schooled by Jenny Craig, and murderous monsters with hands on their eyes — no doubt about it, the baroque and neo-Raphaelite splendor (or Splenda, since it’s largely CGI-based) of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth leaves the majority of 2006’s unimpressive prestige movies looking drab and mechanical. But as Del Toro’s rich pageant attempts to shove what feels like 12 dozen solemn manifestations of Cate Blanchett aside in order to make a valid, exciting run for the Academy Awards, it’s important to realize that the director’s vision, while creative, has a definite antecedent: one of the least-known greatest movies of all time, Víctor Erice’s sublime 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive. Like Erice’s movie, Pan’s Labyrinth is an allegorical look back at Francisco Franco–<\d>era Spain, as seen through the eyes of a little girl.
Del Toro has admitted that The Spirit of the Beehive has seeped into his soul — though not, to some detriment, into his filmmaking style. Its influence is evident even in the architectural emphasis of his movie’s title, which trades Erice’s honeycombs for a maze. Within the movie itself, however, this labyrinth overtly evokes Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) races through corner-laden leafy and stony passages away from the murderous clutches of her stepfather, Franco minion Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Her fight for life traverses the film’s narrative — a much larger labyrinth that ultimately connects her imagination to the lives of others.
The bittersweet outcome of that struggle won’t surprise anyone familiar with Shakespeare, not to mention Del Toro’s past movies or his enlightened, enthusiastic love of John Carpenter — a rare Hollywood director who doesn’t think a pigtailed child with an ice cream cone is above the ruthlessness of the streets. In Del Toro’s 1997 mutant cockroach thriller, Mimic, an orphan in the sewers meets a fate similar to that of a sewer orphan in Bong Joon-ho’s upcoming The Host, the only movie to outdo Pan’s Labyrinth as a politicized genre entry at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. Both Bong and Del Toro measure the sins of the world against a girl’s heroism, and while they’ve learned about the power of spectacle from Steven Spielberg, they haven’t swallowed his saccharine formulas — or pursued his nationalist and reactionary political tendencies.
In Del Toro’s case, this means the Mexican-born director repeatedly returns to Spain under the Fascist reign of Franco to construct fantastic but critical parables in which children represent resistance. In this regard, Pan’s Labyrinth is a sister film to 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, with Ofelia serving as a solitary counterpart to the boys of that film’s haunted school. It’s a mistake — made by at least one pan of Pan — to attribute the film’s fairy-tale quality to sexism on the part of its director; without question, Del Toro is paying homage to Erice’s Spirit, perhaps the greatest movie ever made about a child’s — not just girl’s — consciousness.<\!s>
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