Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López, Doug Jones, Pablo Adán, and Maribel Verdú
Length: 1 hour and 58 minutes
Genre: Drama, fantasy, war
MPAA Rating: R
Description from IMDB:
“In the Falangist Spain of 1944, the bookish young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world.”
A young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her mother (Ariadna Gil) move to the countryside of Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War to live with a military captain (Sergi López) stationed there. He is charged with hunting down the remaining resistance and while he goes about his job, Ofelia begins to see magical creatures and follows them into a fantasy world. The film begins with a shot of Ofelia bleeding, but played in reverse, before introducing the story of Princess Moanna; a young princess of the Underworld, Moanna dreamed of the human world and escaped her handlers one day. She entered the surface and was blinded, losing her memory and dying as a mortal; her father kept hope that one day her soul would return. Ofelia follows a fairy into a nearby labyrinth and learns from a faun (played by Doug Jones and voiced by Pablo Adán) that she must complete three tasks by the full moon, or she will never be able to return to her home.
Ofelia, being the protagonist, is who we are supposed to identify with. She is young, innocent, and wants to be with her mother and unborn brother as a family. She is afraid of the captain and isn’t seeking a replacement for her deceased father, though she feels like that is what her mother is trying to force upon her. She is brave and willing to take leaps of faith when completing tasks, though she is also foolhardy, as is shown when she eats from the Pale Man’s table despite the faun’s warning. Mercedes (Maribel Verdú ) is a servant at the mill and works closely with the captain; unbeknownst to him, she has been aiding the rebels. She is also brave, and cunning; she evades exposure through most of the film and is willing to work for a man she despises in order to help the resistance. At the other end of the spectrum is Captain Vidal; a rigid, meticulous military officer, he is obsessed with his mortality which is expressed through the cracked pocket watch he keeps. The watch belonged to his father, who wanted his son to know the exact time that a real man died and broke it on a rock before being killed in battle. It is this masculine ideal that causes him to assume his forthcoming child will be male, and he accepts no contradictory opinions.
Symbolic imagery permeates throughout Pan’s Labyrinth; the captain lives in the mill which is filled with large gears, much like the inside of a clock. When Ofelia is in the dining room of the Pale Man (Doug Jones), the fireplace in the background is a menacing, open maw ready to feed upon any who breaks the rules of abstaining from eating at the table. With the exception of the Pale Man, the monsters in the film have their own fascinating, if sometimes off-putting, beauty. The real monsters are the Fascists in their lack of care for life and willingness to dispense death to those who disagree. Del Toro has been known to champion outcasts and monsters in his films, and Pan’s Labyrinth strikes the perfect balance between the gorgeous and the grotesque. Following the theme of opposing sensibilities, a melancholy lullaby floats throughout the story both in the soundtrack and as a song that Mercedes hums to Ofelia in an effort to comfort her. It is somber, sad, but also hopeful in a way that shifts the meaning without contradicting it.
The most tense sequence in the film is built through a combination of music and cuts between Ofelia and the Pale Man chasing her; this back and forth, showing her struggling on the one end and the Pale Man’s menacing meander, heightens the thrill for the viewer as the question presses on whether she will escape in time. The tasks are dangerous and frightening, but exciting and thrilling at the same time. This sort of duality of adventure and no reward without risk follows the themes of many fairy tales. The violence in the film is sudden and graphic; del Toro doesn’t shy away from the gruesome and does so in order to show the monstrosity behind violent acts.
Pan’s Labyrinth is also a bit meta in that it is a fairy tale about fairy tales. From the beginning of the film, the importance of fables and books in Ofelia’s life is heavily focused on; her mother has direct conversations with her about the need to grow up and realize that real life isn’t as nice as the stories. Ofelia is pulled into the fantasy by a fairy and the film makes reference to other fables visually; the very dress that Ofelia wears during the first task is based on that of Alice in Wonderland.
There is such a multitude of topics to discuss in this film that I must finish this quickly, lest I continue into the territory of a post that is so long no one will want to read it. Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors due to his incredible vision, unique perspective, and fidelity to telling stories through beautiful images and identifiable characters. We were all young once and wanted to believe in the fantastic and amazing; Pan’s Labyrinth allows us that nostalgia with bits of gritty realism thrown in. The film calls back to Grimm’s fairy tales and the darker versions of many Disney movies that didn’t shirk away from the possibility of a terrible end for the protagonist. However, the film ends with hope and beauty, surpassing the darkness of the real world; Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterwork of film-making and storytelling, but my words can only recommend.
Verdict: 5 adult fables out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of fairy tales, adults, fans of “foreign” films, fans of Guillermo del Toro, people who enjoy symbolic imagery, and those who don’t mind that the god Pan has no part in the movie except for the oblique reference through the inclusion of a faun.
Not recommended for: Children, those who are easily grossed-out, people who don’t speak Spanish but dislike reading subtitles, or those who dislike “foreign” films.