Have you heard literature geeks talking about how the original fairy tales (i.e. Anderson’s, Grimm’s etc.) were actually very dark? How the queen in Snow White was forced to dance to her own death in iron shoes? We’re living in a post-Disney age when most of these stories have been sanitized for our viewing pleasure. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has apparently been trying to put a bit of the darkness back into what could be considered “children’s stories”. Five years ago he directed a memorable film, called The Devil’s Backbone, about a group of orphans who are visited by ghosts of dead children. Like The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in a post-civil war Spain (circa 1939-44) and involves a child protagonist. Ofelia is moved with her very pregnant mother out to the hill country to live with a captain (mom’s new husband) who is trying to hunt down rebels in the woods. Ofelia discovers an ancient labyrinth in the forest behind the old mill where they are stationed. Following a fairy down the deep staircase she meets the faun Pan who recognizes her as the lost princess of their underworld. He helps her to prove her identity and reclaim her spirit-folk heritage by performing three tasks before the next full moon. Despite the magical elements, Pan’s Labyrinth is not about how Ofelia gets to escape the harsh reality around her by playing in a wondrous fantasyland. Imaginative stories sometimes only serve to remind us of how challenging and difficult life can be.
The visual style of this film is quite breathtaking. In keeping with the darkening of the dream world, the fantastical rooms and buildings that Ofelia finds herself in are large and often ornate, but a little decayed and decrepit. (It’s obvious that the fairies don’t do housework.) Nevertheless, even the real-world scenes have that same dilapidated feel. The mill storeroom has creaky doors, the bath basin is tarnished and old, and the bedrooms are dark and cold. It’s interesting that I’m not sure if I would prefer to hang out in the labyrinth or in the captain’s room–neither seems too cozy. There are a lot of visual effects, in particular the Pan creature is very interesting. He is a goat-man who stands on his hind legs, but his horns are long and curled and his eyes are spread apart so he looks almost like an alien. Along with him, the fairies and especially a monster who sits at the feast table seem like creatures out of a nightmare rather than a daydream.
Half the movie is spent on the events in the real world, where the Captain heartlessly hunts for the rebels (not knowing that there are traitors in his own household). He is an excellent villain, prone to systematically torturing his captives in sadistic ways (this is definitely not a family movie). You really want him to get his justice. The interesting thing about the plot is that while he’s definitely the bad guy, the movie doesn’t pit him against Ofelia, our heroine, or her mother. He’s kind of the evil stepfather, but mostly he doesn’t mistreat them. Two somewhat separate stories are going on: Ofelia’s quest, and the captain’s hunt. I expected a lot of symbolic parallels, but instead, both stories actually came together in the end, which was an unexpectedly refreshing way to tell this kind of story.
Without reverting too much to my lit-geek persona, I have to admit that I’m not totally sure what del Toro is trying to say, what message is being conveyed. However, a message may not really be the point. I think what makes this movie good is that it conveys the enchantment of a fairy tale, with the gravitas of a historical drama. Both worlds are intermingled. It’s a unique and creative vision. (4.5 out of 5)