So you know the Disney versions of fairytales we all grew up watching? With the singing animals and the pretty princes and the happy endings? Yeah, this movie is the opposite of that.
Pan’s Labyrinth (or El Laberinto del Fauno)
Writer and Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu, Sergi Lopez
Music by: Javier Navarrete
Pan’s Labyrinth is a faerie tale about a young girl named Ofelia, who has the misfortune to be growing up in 1940s, Fascist-controlled Spain. In a bit of a twist on the traditional faerie tale set-up, she has an evil step-father, a sadistic army officer who has just summoned her and her heavily pregnant mother to come and live with him. Despite the cruel realities surrounding her, Ofelia still believes in magic and faeries. So she’s delighted when she enters the titular stone Labyrinth on her step-father’s property and meets an ancient Faun. The Faun tells her she is the reincarnation of a lost faerie princess (named Moanna–don’t laugh, this was years before the Disney version), and that her true parents have been searching for her. But in order to prove she is the real princess, she must perform three difficult and frightening tasks before the rise of the full moon.
I enjoy a good dark faerie tale every now and then. And there really aren’t enough of them in movies–not the grim, bloody, Grimm-style ones, full of child-eating monsters and morally ambiguous Fae. When this movie is a fantasy, it’s exactly that type of fantasy, and it’s fantastic. The creature designs–largely created through costumes and prosthetics, not CGI–are some of the most imaginatively creepifying things I’ve ever seen. Extra points for creepiness go to The Pale Man (the aforementioned child-eating monster), of course, but everything else about the magical realm is mysterious and oddly beautiful, too, from the tiny, insectoid, shape-shifting faeries to the majestic Faun. All it takes is a haunting soundtrack and some gorgeous underground scenery to complete the atmosphere.
But Pan’s Labyrinth spends about as much time being a war movie as it does being a fantasy movie, and as scary as some of the supernatural monsters may be, they’re nothing compared to the human ones. Ofelia’s step-father, Captain Vidal, is one of the more irredeemably evil characters I’ve seen in a movie. One of his first acts onscreen is to viciously stab a young man to death in front of his father because he thinks he might be a Communist. And he only gets worse from there. Thanks in large part to him, the movie is almost unbearably bleak and sad at times. This is not the kind of story where the villain is defeated easily, or without causing the heroes a lot of misery along the way.
But fortunately, it does have its fair share of heroes. Ofelia may make one or two of those idiotic choices that seem to be required of all faerie tale protagonists, but she also shows constant courage, resilience and selflessness even as tragedies pile up around her. Ofelia’s only ally in the mortal world, a maid named Mercedes, is also worth cheering for as she secretly helps a band of resistance fighters behind the Captain’s back. Ditto for Mercedes’ friend and fellow conspirator, Doctor Ferreiro. Throughout the movie we constantly see people rebelling against evil authorities (whether human or Fae) in order to do the right thing, regardless of consequences. And the bleak circumstances just make these heroic moments stand out all the more.
I found the theme of disobedience particularly interesting, because a lot of faerie tales are all about how important it is to obey the rules: “Don’t touch that spindle,” “Don’t eat that food,” “Don’t go into the woods alone.” And there are moments like that in this movie, but the problem is that almost all the people making up those rules are either evil or under the sway of evil. So the only way to be a hero is to disobey. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a good moral to teach kids, but in case it wasn’t clear enough, this movie is not suited for kids in any way, shape, or form. And the importance of disobeying evil authorities, even when it could cost you your life, is an excellent moral to each adults…especially if they happen to be living under a fascist regime.
My only real problem with this movie is that its fantasy elements all but disappear for most of the third act, leaving us with just the war elements. I was hoping for more fantasy lore and prosthetic monsters. But that’s a personal preference on my part. Both halves of the story are told equally well, and neither would work without the other.
Some other thoughts: 1. The English title is a misnomer. The god Pan neither appears nor is mentioned at any time in this movie, and the Labyrinth is never said to belong to him. The Spanish title, “The Labyrinth of the Faun,” is much more accurate. 2. This is the first foreign-language movie I’ve watched in which I could actually understand the foreign language (most of the time). So that was fun. I now have the words for “faerie” (hada) and quite a few expletives added to my Spanish vocabulary. 3. Some might say the ending to this movie is ambiguous, but they are wrong. It’s a faerie tale ending, plain and simple.
I don’t think everyone would enjoy Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s a little on the odd side and very much on the tragic side. There’s quite a lot of gore and at least one scary monster (possibly more, if you’re not into the Faun’s design), and if you go in expecting a more Disney-esque fairytale, you’re going to be very disappointed. And probably traumatised. But the movie’s been out long enough that I think most people know what to expect, and for me it delivered exactly what I was hoping for: a dark, tragic, visually stunning fantasy with enough layered symbolism and references to a history that I (sadly) know little about to make it worth further unpacking.
So even though it didn’t spend quite as much time with the magical creatures as I would have liked, this is still a movie I could see myself watching over again. Like all great fantasy, it immersed me in a creative magical world without ever letting me forget what the real one is like. And despite its deep darkness, it ultimately tells a rather hopeful story: one in which wonder, courage, and innocence are glorified while arrogance and cruelty are condemned.
Man, I wish Del Toro had directed the Hobbit movies…