NOTE: This review was written for the Film Club hosted by What About the Twinkie? The review was originally posted there on April 19th, 2015.
I’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth a surprising number of times over the years. The first time was in high school Spanish. Our teacher threw the VHS into one of those rolling TV machines, flipped on the subtitles and zoned out for forty-five minutes (three days in a row). A few years later a college professor tossed in a DVD, sat intently for two hours, and paused the movie every few minutes to explain the parallels between the movie, the Spanish Civil War and the greater fight against fascism. Now all my later viewings are distorted by that lens. But the film deals with more than political commentary. Pan’s Labyrinthis layered with enough meanings and interpretations that it’s easy to wonder how much you missed at first glance. Well, maybe that just happened with me.
The story follows a young girl named Ofelia who travels with her pregnant mother to rural Spain where the mother’s second husband is serving as a Captain in Franco’s army. On the way to Captain Vidal’s outpost, Ofelia meets a strange creature who is later revealed to be a shape-shifting fairy. Soon Ofelia meets an extremely creepy faun who tells her that she is “not born of man” and instead is the fabled Princess Moanna alluded to in the film’s opening. In order to ascend to the throne, Ofelia must follow the faun’s guidance and complete three tasks which involve a frog which can turn inside-out and a creature which recently lost a commendable amount of weight and sees through its hands. As expected, things get weird.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Ofelia’s mother becomes increasingly ill as her pregnancy progresses and Vidal fights rebels in the surrounding woods. In Vidal, del Toro takes the fairy tale approach to villain building. In his first meeting with Ofelia, the girl politely reaches out her left hand to shake the Captain’s hand. He quickly grabs it and chastises her for offering the wrong hand. A few scenes later Vidal viciously punishes two conejo hunters. Hitchcock said (bear with me) that “in the old days villains had moustaches and kicked the dog. Audiences are smarter today. They don’t want their villain to be thrown at them … They want an ordinary human being with failings.” Vidal is forcefully thrown at us and is far from ordinary. This isn’t lazy writing but establishes the film’s fairy tale paradigm of good and evil with the good (Ofelia) overcoming evil both in the real world (Vidal) and in her fairy tale world.
A lot can be written about Pan’s Labyrinth’s use of magical realism and its purpose in the film. Does the film use fairy tale principles to tell the story of a young girl caught up in a war? Or does it squeeze the horrors of war into a fairy tale world to expose war’s foolishness? Are all the fairies a figment of Ofelia’s imagination (the same question people asked about Birdman)? For me, the real purpose of the movie is to let Guillermo del Toro flex his world-building muscles. Regardless of how well his films have been received, they are always at least interesting. I haven’t always been kind to his movies in my reviews but he has built a great filmography by creating detailed worlds filled with vampire hunters, cockroach killers, giant robots, demonic heroes and chalk fuelled doorways. Pan’s Labyrinth is probably his most fleshed out world with the most to to say about ours. Even if I still don’t get it.
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