#25 Pan’s Labyrinth
(2006, Guillermo del Toro)
“Life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place”
Whenever somebody sees the words “fairy tale” it’s automatically assumed that the story, whether it’s in a book or a movie, is instantly for kids. And while more recent fairy tale adaptations have been aimed at the smaller among us, there is a surprising amount of gore and murder in the original texts. Which is clearly what Guillermo del Toro realised when he made Pan’s Labyrinth.
It’s 1944 in fascist Spain, five years after the Spanish Civil War. The film is set in an isolated military outpost, a converted mill attempting to hold off the rebel factions who are camped out in the surrounding woods. The outpost is led by the stern, ruthless Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who is intensely proud of himself and his family’s military history. He also has a son on the way, so he’s ordered his wife and stepdaughter to be moved onto the base so that his son can be born near his father.
But where does the fairy tale connection come in? Well, Vidal’s stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is constantly losing herself in books, fairy tales in particular. As the movie progresses, the world of fairy tales begins to leak into the real world through a mysterious labyrinth near the base, home to a faun who claims that she is the lost princess of the fairy world and she needs to complete three tasks to return to her world.
One thing that you’d be forgiven for thinking is that this is a quirky family movie, but the mere mention of fascist Spain should be a major hint that it is far from family-friendly. The fantasy world seemingly exists as an escape for Ofelia, otherwise traumatised by the horrors of war and fascism around her, as well as her oppressive stepfather. This is a dark movie, and should be treated as such.
Visually, the movie is impressive. The fantasy imagery, particularly the makeup on the faun and monsters such as the horrific Pale Man, is stunning. There is great attention to detail in trying to bring the fairy tale world to life. But also, this attention to detail extends to the post-Civil War side of things, which does lead to some very impressive but very gruesome scenes. The film doesn’t spare us the horrors of war, it shows everything, specifically to show us the world that Ofelia is so desperate to escape from.
The story of fascist Spain is effective, a tale of intrigue and war that raises questions of loyalty and keeps you glued to your seat. The fairy tale plot, however, is a little lacking. There are a few minor plot holes and while there are some intelligent scenes, such as those in the lair of the Pale Man, it ultimately feels quite hollow. What’s more, the two stories don’t really gel together that well. There are some small parallels – the camp’s doctor makes a small speech about following orders that becomes quite apt in Ofelia’s choices – but overall the two are so separate they may as well be different movies.
But it’s also entirely possible that this is the point. The lack of connection could be what attracts Ofelia to escape to the fairy world, a world entirely disconnected from the terrible one she lives in. And as for the plot holes, this could be because the entire story is based on the flawed world of real fairy tales. Plus it’s vague as to whether the fairy tale world is real or all in Ofelia’s mind. If it’s the latter, the strange leaps of logic make sense as they are taking place in the mind of a child.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a very good movie with plenty of layers in the plots, but perhaps the two do not meet as well as they probably should.
Starring Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ivana Baquero & Doug Jones
Written by Guillermo del Toro
PProduced by Alfonso Cuaran, Bertha Navarro, Guillermo del Toro & Frida Torresblanco
Music score by Javier Navarrete
Cinematography by Guillermo Navarro
Edited by Bernat Vilaplana
Favourite Scene: After witnessing far too many horrors at the hands of the Captain, the doctor finally takes a stand and tells the captain what he really thinks. It’s a brave move, but it’s hard to question the strength of the doctor’s personal ethics here. The performances are just excellent.
Scene That Bugged Me: Ofelia fails a task and is told she will never see the faun again, but then the faun reappears and gives her a second chance. This seems a bit out of nowhere and unexplained.
Watch it if: You want fairy tales to turn real
Avoid it if: You think it’s for kids.
Originally posted on Blogspot Sunday 11 December 2011