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Fantastic writing is only the beginning of the magic
By Christine Stoddard
Writing: In the words of The Chicago Tribune, Guillermo del Toro's “Pan's Labyrinth” is a fairy tale for grown-ups. The film works as a parable, which is always a difficult genre to pull off in a non-medieval context. But the film also functions as a convincing work of hyper-realism, especially with its portrayal of violence during the Spanish Civil War. (Del Toro's other film about the Spanish Civil War is “Devil's Backbone.”) The fairy tale and realist portions of the film complement each other because they are both matters of extremes. When they meet, there is balance. This balance is evident at a very basic storytelling level that the acting, production design, cinematography and other more visual elements of the film progress in a natural, persuasive, and engaging way.
Ofelia is a compelling character because she experiences conflict. As a dreamer coping with the death of her father and her mother's re-marriage, her emotional growth has been a little stunted. Even though she is on the verge of puberty, she still believes in fairy tales. At the same time, she lives in a less than idyllic point in history. Violence and pain take many shapes in her life: her mother is sick with child; her step-father is a serial murderer; war and blood-shed abound. Ofelia can choose to mature and accept reality or ignore reality and remain in her fairy tale world. She chooses the latter to her detriment.
All of the adults in Ofelia's life face a similar, though less literal predicament. Each one must cope with the Spanish Civil War. The question is, how? Del Toro does not blatantly answer it, though he actively portrays Fascism as cruel and disgusting (primarily through the development of Captain Vidal's character.) Ofelia's mother, for instance, chooses to cope with the loss of her first husband to the war by marrying a sadistic military man. Ultimately that decision leads to her death: Vidal never treats her kindly, only caring for the child she carries. When she dies, Vidal does not mourn her, proud instead that she produced a male heir to carry on his evil legacy. Vidal, of course, dies, too, indicating that del Toro has no answer for how to deal with war (except to avoid having it in the first place.)
Of the film's heavy fairy tale influences, del Toro said:
“I have been fascinated by fairy tales and the mechanics as work in them since my early childhood. I have enjoyed reading the original versions of Grimms' Fairytales and have always found that the form itself lends easily to deeply disturbing images. Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde in fact have some tales of thinly veiled S&M, full of horrific and brutal moments.”
Other authors who influenced and informed del Toro's understanding of mythology and fairy tales include María Tatar, Jack Zipes, Vladimir Propp, and Bruno Bettelheim.
Acting: Ivana Baquero (Ofelia/Princess Moanna) is one of those rare child actors who can perform without obvious self-consciousness. Ivana was 11 when the film was shot, making her a few years older than del Toro had originally wanted for Ofelia. However, Ivana's age does not detract from the story. In fact, it enhances it. She can still play an 'innocent' who believes in fairy tales because she hasn't quite entered puberty. Yet she also has an evolving knowledge of the real world and an immediate need to stop believing in fairy tales, as far as the adults in her life are concerned.
Doug Jones (the Faun/the Pale Man) said in an exclusive interview with Reelz Channel that an actor's responsibility is to convince the audience that his character woke up in this organic world. Every actor in the film manages to convince the audience of that. Such nuanced performances are especially important in high-fantasy films since the audience already has to be persuaded that this magical world exists. Expensive props, costumes, and set dressing help, but will ultimately mean nothing if actors cannot deliver natural performances.
According to one interview with the director (EatMyBrains.com), del Toro said that Spanish casting agents discouraged him from choosing Sergi López for the role of Vidal. The casting agents said that due to López's history as a melodramatic comedic actor, he could not play such a mean, raw character. However, as all the other actors in the film, López managed to seem real. In his particular case, he portrays Vidal as the film's truest monster, despite his lack of horns or fangs.
Of casting, del Toro said, “Casting is a lot of instinct like everything else in filmmaking, and sometimes you can go wrong.” In this case, he was very right.
Cinematography: Most of the shots from Ofelia's fantasies are medium and wide to give the viewer a full scope of the fairy tale world. Since this film had a $19 million dollar budget and could afford advanced production design and quality CGI, Guillermo Navarro had some freedom in framing.
Production Design: Though “Pan's Labyrinth” uses some CGI, many of the visual effects are the result of careful production design, including advanced make-up and animatronics. In some cases, CGI and animatronics were blended, as with the mandrake root.
Prosthetic make-up also played a huge role in the film, particularly with the Faun. Jones spent an average of 5 hours in the make-up chair everyday as latex foam was applied to him. His horns, which were always applied last, weighed 10 pounds. Such attention to detail is necessary for all of the elaborate fairy tales, as well as the fact that this film is also a period piece.
Though del Toro had been working on character design for the film for years, Eugenio Caballero, the production designer, and his department prepared for “Pan's Labyrinth” in only three months.
Location also contributed to the film. “Pan's Labyrinth” was shot in Central Spain over a period of 11 weeks near Madrid, during the driest summer Spain had experienced in decades. This proved problematic because the story takes place in a lush, fairy tale forest. To overcome this problem, they shot only around the forest's shaded areas where ferns grew.
Sound Design: Javier Navarrete, who also scored “Devil's Backbone,” scored “Pan's Labyrinth.” The reoccurring lullaby is haunting, enhancing the film's fear factor.