“A Long Time Ago, In The Underground Realm, Where There Are No Lies Or Pain, There Lived A Princess Who Dreamed Of The Human World…”
What Pan’s Labyrinth Means to Us
I dare you to name a better original fantasy film from the 21st century. Have you tried thinking of one? Are you stumped? I assume you couldn’t think of one and are stumped, and that’s because this is best there is in that category. In many ways it feels like Guillermo del Toro was born to make this movie. As great as much of the rest of his filmography is, THIS is the movie that remains the career defining high for him. Like so many others, I was stunned by the creativity and imagination to dream this up. Furthermore, I was absolutely mesmerized by his ability to bring this to life. Mix in the grim historical backdrop and emotional weight of Ofelia’s home life, and you’ve got a recipe for a film that will suck me all the way in. I remember being blown away the first time I watched it. And I remember being blown away with each subsequent viewing. It might be safe to say that I’ll be blown away the next viewing away.
When I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth the only Guillermo Del Toro movies I had seen were
Mimic, Blade II, and Hellboy. As much as I loved those movies – and love them I did –
nothing in them really prepared me for how damn GOOD Pan’s Labyrinth would be.
Maybe if I had seen The Devil’s Backbone first (a film that can serve as a rough
companion film to Pan’s Labyrinth), but I hadn’t. It would be like if you had only
seen Bad Taste and Dead Alive before seeing The Fellowship of the Ring. (Okay,
maybe not QUITE the shock that would have been, but you get what I mean.) I was
surprised in the absolute best way. It was so much more than I had expected.
Pan’s Labyrinth is a beautiful horror movie. A wonderful tragedy. A Grimm’s Fairy
Tale, but told like the old, bloody versions, where sparrows crave revenge and God
hates willful children. There are princesses and fairies and monsters and then there
is the faun… (played so well by Doug Jones). There is innocence and hatred and love
and betrayal. There is a happy ending. Or not. It’s an amazing film, and one well
worth watching more than once. In fact, I might just need to see it again now…
A Man and His Monsters
Guillermo del Toro has always loved monsters. When he was about eight years old, he began making shorts with his father’s Super 8 camera. One of these focused on a “serial killer potato” that murders his mother and brothers and escapes their house in an attempt to conquer the world, only for it to be crushed by a car. After years of making shorts, he got the opportunity to helm five episodes of the Mexican horror anthology series La Hora Marcada. They involved time travel, extraterrestrials, and a group of zombies taking over a fast food restaurant.
Afterward, he directed and starred in a commercial involving a werewolf, a unique take on the vampire story (Cronos), a mature ghost story (The Devil’s Backbone), and movie about giant killer humanoid cockroaches (Mimic). In 2012, he was asked to participate in Sight & Sound’s decennial film poll of that year. Of the ten films he picked, four include monsters. Monsters, mad men, insects, and fairy tales have always been his obsession, which is why it’s no surprise his magnum opus involves all of them.
A Tale of Two Worlds
Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth explores the world of fantasy and reality through the eyes of a young girl named Ofelia. The film is a beautiful composition of magical elements and harsh realities of life. Due to the horrors of her reality, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is drawn into a mythical world of creatures and magic. The film explores themes of power, violence, and human nature, and offers a unique perspective on the historical events that took place during the war.
The film opens with a narration that sets the tone for the story. We learn that Ofelia and her pregnant mother are traveling to a remote rural area where her mother’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), is stationed. The Captain is a ruthless and sadistic military officer who is tasked with wiping out the remnants of the Spanish resistance movement. It is clear from the beginning that his presence in the film represents the dark side of humanity, and that he will be a major antagonist throughout.
Ofelia, on the other hand, is a young girl with a vivid imagination who is drawn to the world of fantasy and magic. She discovers an ancient labyrinth near the Captain’s home, and meets a creature named Faun (Doug Jones) who challenges her to complete three tasks in order to become the Princess of the Underworld. From this point on, the film shifts back and forth between the real world and the fantasy world, and it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two.
Pan’s Visual Style
One of the most striking aspects of the film is its visual style. Del Toro’s use of color and lighting is masterful, and he creates a sense of otherness and surrealism throughout. The mythical creatures that inhabit the fantasy world are brilliantly designed, with each one embodying a different aspect of Ofelia’s development and growth. The Faun, for example, represents the wise and protective figure that guides her through her journey, while the Pale Man (Doug Jones) represents the danger and power that exist in the real world.
Captain Vidal and the Horrors of War
The film also includes some graphic and intense scenes of violence. Captain Vidal is portrayed as a brutal and merciless torturer, and the violence he inflicts on his victims is shown in a gruesome and realistic way. Real life villains such as nazis and fascists automatically get placed atop their own special pedestal of villainy. They immediately have a leg up on their competition but Captain Vidal doesn’t rest on his laurels; he goes out of his way to earn every ounce of hatred the audience can muster. Cold, brutal, unsympathetic, and self-righteous, Vidal truly believes every terrible atrocity he commits is right. In any other film, the Pale Man that Ophelia has to contend with would be the major baddie but Vidal is so unrelentingly vicious, he makes an actual child-eating monster seem less threatening by comparison.
The film does not shy away from showing the horrors of war, and the juxtaposition of real-world violence with the magical world of Ofelia offers a stark contrast. Despite the intensity of the violence, the film ultimately offers a message of hope and resilience. Ofelia’s journey through the fantasy world represents her growth and empowerment, and she learns to overcome the challenges she faces with bravery and determination. Her resilience in the face of violence and cruelty offers a lesson on the power of the human spirit, and the ability of individuals to overcome even the most daunting obstacles.
A Timeless Classic
Pan’s Labyrinth is a visually stunning and thematically rich film that offers a unique perspective on the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. Del Toro’s masterful use of imagery and symbolism creates a world of magic and wonder that leaves a lasting impression on the viewer. The film’s deep exploration of themes such as power, violence, and resilience make it a timeless classic that is sure to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Are you a fan of Pan’s Labyrinth? Do you have a fun fact, piece of trivia, or analysis about the 2006 film? Share it in the comments!