Keith LaFountaine’s review published on Letterboxd:
How is film distinguished from other narrative art forms - or art forms in general? How does one differentiate literature, and plays, and paintings, and photography from film? It's a question many film critics and philosophers have struggled with, but if I were to be so bold and produce an answer, it would be: it's because film uses a bit of everything and creates something incredibly unique from them.
What I mean by that is: film utilizes a variety of artistic tools (writing, acting, photography, sound capture, etc.) and mixes it all together. When done well, this can lead to a film like Pan's Labyrinth.
The second rhetorical question to ask is: what is the mark of a masterpiece? Of course I don't mean in an objective sense, since art is a subjective medium (oddly enough, I took a philosophy course on the subject of art, and what is deemed "art" in the typical sense of the term, spanning from the Renaissance to the modern uprising of abstract paintings and films - mind melting stuff). But how do we know innately that a film is a cut above the rest?
In the case of this film, it's a number of things for me. Firstly, on a technical level, Pan's Labyrinth is an oasis of creativity, color, special effects, cinematography, and sound design in the desert that is modern filmmaking. With so many directors copying each other, and so many derivative films being released, it is uncommon to come across a film in the past decade that is so wholly unique and original. Nothing else out there is like Pan's Labyrinth and Pan's Labyrinth is like nothing else out there. It is truly one of the most original films to ever be made, and that is a testament to the creative genius of Guillermo del Toro.
The other aspect of a masterpiece is the narrative. A number of factors are rolled into play here: how original is the story? How well executed is it? Do I like (or love to hate) the characters? Are they full developed? What is the subterranean significance (if any)?
Part of what makes this film work so well is just how wholly personal it is to del Toro. He calls it a sibling film to another excellent film, The Devil's Backbone. Both discuss war, and the loss of innocence a child undergoes while thrown in the midst of anguish and death. Pan's Labyrinth can both be seen as a dark fairytale for adults, and also a speech on the effects war has on innocence or innocent people. The desire to escape the blues and grays of war-torn Spain is understandable, especially from a child's perspective. It's this intimacy that makes the film work on an entirely different level.
I can't sing high enough praises of this film. Pan's Labyrinth is not just an excellent film, it's a wholly unique being with a life of its own. That is something truly special, beyond just good filmmaking. Much like its ending message, this film chose a way to remain immortal.