‘Pan’s Labyrinth’: Behold A Pale Man, By Kurt Loder

Guillermo del Toro's worlds of wonder. Also: Clive Owen on the run in 'Children of Men.'

Fanboys and -girls will already be aware that “Pan’s Labyrinth” introduces one of the most nightmarish creatures in recent fantasy filmdom: the Pale Man. He’s a faceless, corpse-colored, child-eating abomination with eyes in the palms of his hands, and he’s a chilling reminder that one of the core elements of the fairy-tale form — usually lost in the long transition from shuddery folk yarn to cuddly animated feature — is the element of pure horror.

The Mexican writer and director, Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy”), has structured the film as a duplex fairy tale, one part set in the real world of wartime Spain in 1944 — a place of all-too-human terrors — and the other in a fantastic underground kingdom filled with enchantments and monsters beyond the ken of humankind. Aboveground, it is five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and the triumphant fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, still has his troops out hunting down the remnants of the rebel forces that opposed him. As the movie opens, an 11-year-old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is being driven through the countryside with her widowed mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to an abandoned mill that has been converted into a field headquarters for a detachment of Franco’s vengeful soldiers. Carmen is pregnant, and she is on her way to be married to the company’s commander, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), who is the father of her soon-to-be-born child. Vidal, with his gleaming black boots and brilliantined hair, is a severely handsome martinet and a ruthless killer. He wants only a son to carry on his name; he has little interest in Carmen, and none at all in Ofelia.

Isolated in Vidal’s dark, creaky house, with no company apart from her clutch of beloved fairy-tale books, Ofelia is drawn by a magical dragonfly into an underground labyrinth — a jewel-like realm ruled by a king who has lost his daughter, but believes her soul will one day return. Could Ofelia be this returning princess? The kingdom’s goat-legged gate-keeper, a towering faun called Pan (Doug Jones), decides to find out. He sets her three dangerous tasks to be accomplished before the new moon grows full. These involve a monstrous, disgusting toad, a mysterious key, and a hair-raising encounter with the Pale Man (also played by Jones).

Meanwhile, up above, Capitán Vidal is scouring the local forests with his men, seizing the peasants’ crops and provisions and brutally executing anyone he believes, mistakenly or not, to be a rebel. He keeps the plundered food in a locked storeroom, from which he doles it back out, in meagerly rationed portions, to the peasants. The lock has only one key, and when the storeroom is broken into, he begins to suspect the presence of a rebel collaborator within his household. As his suspicions grow, the situation of Carmen and Ofelia — who is also grappling with the otherworldly perils of the labyrinth — becomes increasingly precarious.

When I first saw “Pan’s Labyrinth,” I thought the two worlds of the story — one rooted in cinematic realism, the other in a fresh new kind of cinematic fantasy — were too jarringly different to be successfully stitched together within one movie. On second viewing, though, the boldness of Toro’s conception is striking. The dream horrors of the labyrinth mirror the human horrors of the world above in the way that classic fairy tales, in their unexpurgated form, always have. The two realms are linked, not by visual style, but by a common sense of dread. And the director depicts the horrors of both worlds — whether it be Ofelia trapped in a dead-end corridor by the faceless man, or Vidal preparing to take hammer and ice pick to a helpless prisoner — with the unflinching savagery they require. (How else could they horrify us?) It’s a very scary movie at some points (and it’s made even more unsettling by the possibility that Ofelia’s descent into the labyrinth is actually a retreat into denial, and madness). The bad news in both worlds is that happy endings aren’t always possible. The good news is that they are.

Some of the animation effects still seem awkward, especially the Pan character, whose clumping gait recalls the staggery creatures of the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion epics of the 1950s. But the actors — especially Baquero and López, a matinee idol from Monster Island — carry the picture over its occasional rough spots. And the Pale Man will rule your dreams.

“Children of Men”: Baby Love

Here’s a movie with something for viewers on both sides of the political aisle. Lefties can smugly approve the depiction of uniformed goons stalking the streets of a future London, busting illegal immigrants and stuffing them into sidewalk holding pens, as agents of a “Department of Homeland Security” (that evil American idea having hopped the pond, apparently). Depending on how far left they tilt, they may also thrill to the sight of the members of a group called Uprising! marching around in full terrorist drag (black ski masks, headbands with Arabic lettering), firing off their machine guns in support of the immigrants’ just cause. (“Uprising,” of course, is the English equivalent of the Arabic “intifadah.”)

Viewers who lean right, on the other hand, can cluck appreciatively at the plot’s lynchpin: a worldwide infertility epidemic that has resulted in no babies being born for the past 18 years. (“God’s Revenge!” reads an evangelical street banner.) Must this not be a comment on the plunging European birthrates of today, which are below replacement level, leaving a social vacuum soon to be filled by, shall we say, more fruitful immigrant groups, possibly of the jihadist persuasion?

It would be nice to report that director Alfonso Cuarón and the four other writers with whom he huddled to create the screenplay for this movie (based rather loosely on a 1992 novel by P.D. James) were attempting to take a balanced view of a complex issue. But there is no clear issue here. As was the case with “V for Vendetta” earlier this year, an English story written in a previous decade has been laboriously updated with au courant American political attitudes that don’t really parse. The picture is a conceptual muddle. Fortunately, Cuarón is such a talented filmmaker that the movie is interesting on other levels.

The year is 2027, and Clive Owen plays Theo, an office drone who never leaves home without a pint of whiskey in the pocket of his rumpled raincoat, and who wanders the teeming, trashed-out London streets in an apathetic daze. All around him, government billboards instruct citizens to rat out illegal immigrants — refugees from the rest of the collapsing world — and terrorist bombs intermittently erupt. When Theo is kidnapped by a revolutionary group called the Fishes, he is reunited, briefly, with a former lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), who is now a head Fish. Theo and Julian once had a baby together; after the child died in a flu pandemic, Theo sank into despair, while Julian joined the anti-government resistance. She wants Theo to obtain transit papers for a girl named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey, in a winningly feisty performance), an African refugee who has somehow managed to become pregnant and must be taken as quickly as possible to a mysterious organization called The Human Project. A boat’s on the way.

Theo obtains the necessary transit papers, slips away from the increasingly paranoid Fishes, and sets out in a beat-up car with Kee and a midwife named Miriam (Pam Ferris, playing a character with no point) to rendezvous with The Human Project. They shelter along the way at the house of an old hippie named Jasper (a twinkly Michael Caine, invaluable as always); but the movie soon devolves into an extended chase, with Theo pursued by both government troops and furious Fishes. Cuarón has gone for a hand-held, documentary-style look in the urban-streetfighting sequences, and they convey a convincing chaos of wild gunfire and crumpling bodies. The rest of the film — apart from the scenes in Jasper’s house, which exude a cozy glow — has a verité feel, too. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“The New World”) has set aside his usual pictorial meticulousness, and shoots much of the movie in variable natural light, giving us overcast streets, soggy countryside (not unlike the loamy outdoor scenes in Cuarón’s last feature, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), and murky interiors with a blown-out glare blaring through the windows. This is an interesting technical achievement, but after a while the unrelenting gloom becomes oppressive.

Caine and Moore lend much-needed warmth to the picture, but they’re not around a lot; and Owen is prevented by the concept of his character from using his hard-nosed charisma to add punch to the proceedings. His Theo is a morose, shambling figure, and his slow-growing commitment to save Kee is obscurely motivated. He also has no weapons to fight off his vicious pursuers, and so he’s left with little to do but run.

A number of questions arise over the course of the film. For one thing, in the scenes where we see government thugs rounding up desperate immigrants, we hear several of them speaking German, and it’s hard not to associate them with the German Jews who fled the Nazi genocide during World War II. If this element of the story is meant to relate to the current U.S. debate about illegal immigrants — about people who leave their homelands voluntarily to pursue a better life in this country — then it’s a glib trivialization of the defining political horror of the 20th Century. Even more unclear is the relationship between mass infertility and political tyranny. And when the pregnant Kee tells Theo she’s a virgin, and later we see people weepily genuflecting and crossing themselves as she walks through a crowd with her newborn child — well, the last thing this already-teetering tale needs is a messiah thread. (Or another line like, “As the sound of the playground faded, the despair set in.”)

There is also a problematic pig. When Theo visits a government ministry, we see a giant inflatable pig floating above the smokestacks on its roof. This is an obvious homage to the cover of the 1977 Pink Floyd album, Animals, in which an identical porcine creature also featured. The Floyd pig was last seen in public, however, bobbling around concert halls during the band’s 1980 tour for its subsequent album, “The Wall.” This suggests a possible reference to the wall that’s now being proposed for construction along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. But then, a bit later in the movie, we meet a daffy cop named Syd (played with whack-job brio by Peter Mullan); and since Syd Barrett was no longer a member of Pink Floyd by the 1970s, we may conclude that Cuarón is … what, just a big Pink Floyd fan? If the pig was intended to make a remote political point, Syd the cop dilutes it.

There’s also the question of why a hard-charging guerrilla group would choose to call itself the Fishes, but we can let that pass. (The name derives, in an approximate way, from the book.) “Children of Men” benefits greatly from the simple presence of Clive Owen, who’s fun to watch even in a recessive role like this one, and from the comic sparkle of Michael Caine — a man who’s made more than a hundred movies over the last 50 years, and yet comes up with another entirely fresh characterization here. The film isn’t bad, exactly, but it is lackluster; and the political issues it attempts to engage — the fear of immigrants and the role of apathy in enabling the rise of fascist governments — are incoherent. Coming from a director of such promise, the picture is a disappointment.

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