The random number generator gods have spoken, and it looks like this week we’re taking a look at another film that I’ve seen before, and that I’m quite fond of. However, unlike most of the movies that I’ve seen before in the course of this project, I really think that this is only the second time I’ve ever seen Guillermo del Toro’s nightmare fairy tale, Pan’s Labyrinth. I know that I saw the movie back when it first came out, potentially because I had been an inordinately big fan of del Toro’s weird Hellboy movie. It also may have just been because this movie was pretty damn big in 2006. It was an incredibly strange movie to hit quite like it did, and it was one of those movies that I feel like everyone just sort of saw, and then were probably a little baffled by. Guillermo del Toro continues to be a director that I’m endlessly fascinated by. One of the most seemingly good-natured working directors today, it really seems like del Toro’s career works in opposite of everyone else trying to work within the Hollywood system. Because looking over his filmography, it really does seem like del Toro is a director who makes incredibly personal and strange films, which become huge successes, and he then uses that clout to play with his real passion, silly action movies. It’s just so wonderfully insane to me that this pitch-black fairy tale set during the Spanish Civil War, entirely in Spanish, that contains child murder was a huge success, and he then followed it up by getting them to agree to let him make an even crazier Hellboy movie. Which, I can’t help but respect. Del Toro is a fascinating filmmaker, and one who always guarantees a passionate film. I’ve never seen anything that he’s had a hand in that felt even remotely phoned in. And, it’s with that passion that he was able to help make this tremendously strange little film what it ended up becoming.
Guillermo del Toro is a creator who seems to be constantly coming up with project, many of which don’t end up reaching fruition. But, in the never-ending quest of new ideas, he can bring together a wealth of influences, coming together to create something unique and fascinating. With Pan’s Labyrinth del Toro lifted from many different sources, his own fascination with the Spanish Civil War, his love of horror and dark fairy tales, stories about children being thrown into insane worlds that they cannot begin to understand such as Alice in Wonderland, a healthy mistrust of the Catholic Church, and an apparently real obsession with fauns, which he claims to have dreamed about quite frequently as a child through lucid dreaming. He took all of this together, and after some tweaks to the story, ended up creating the plot of Pan’s Labyrinth. At this point in his career he was more or less alternating between making smaller-scale films in Europe, and making big budget action films in America, and after working on Hellboy felt like it was time to bring this tale of magic and fascism to life. Shot on location in Spain, and utilizing a mostly Spanish cast, del Toro sought to bring this time period to life, while also using a series of special effects including animatronics, CGI, and extensive makeup to accomplish the more fantastical elements. It was a deeply personal film to del Toro, to the point that he actually ended up writing the English subtitles himself, after feeling let down by the translations of his previous films, and wanting to get the meaning of everything across exactly as he intended. And, I believe that it’s that personal touch that helped the film become what it became, because when Pan’s Labyrinth started to get released it was pretty immediately beloved. Film festivals gave it standing ovations, critics raved, and it ended up doing quite well at the box office, especially for a Spanish-language fairy tale. But, I think it’s a testament to what a gorgeously realized story this is that the film hit like it did, and even fourteen years later it’s easy to see why it was such a big deal.
As the film begins we’re provided with a bit of narration telling us the story of Princess Moanna, the daughter of a mythical King of the Underworld, who visited the world of the humans against her father’s wishes. But, she was lost on Earth, forgetting who she truly is, becoming mortal and reincarnating herself throughout time, until she eventually returns to the Underworld and takes her rightful place. We then head to 1944 Spain, where a young girl named Ofelia is traveling with her pregnant mother to begin living with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal, a prominent member in the Franco fascist regime gripping the nation. They will live in a large home attached to a mill in the middle of the forest so that Vidal can continue hunting down the rebel groups living in the forest, while Ofelia’s mother Carmen prepares to have Vidal’s son. Ofelia is terrified of Vidal, and dreads having to live in this home, much preferring to read about fairy tales, and daydream about a more magical world. And, upon arriving at the mill, she is shocked to find an ancient stone labyrinth next to the property. She tries to investigate it, but is warned off from it by Mercedes, the new housekeeper. However, that night Ofelia is visited by a large insect which transforms into a fairy, and who guides her out of the mill and into the labyrinth. There she eventually comes across the Faun, a massive being who tells Ofelia that she’s the reincarnation of Princess Moanna, and that he has a series of tasks for her to prove that she’s the Princess, upon which time she will get reunited with her true parents. He gives her a magical book that will reveal the tasks, and tells her that her first mission is to find a cursed tree in the forest, and remove a golden key from the bell of a magical toad who is living inside of it.
Ofelia isn’t quite sure what to make of her experience with the faun, but decides to go ahead an investigate it all the same. Unfortunately, she also learns that Captain Vidal is hosting a large party at the mill that evening, and she’ll be expected to attend and be dressed nicely. But, before the party can begin she slips out and starts looking for the tree. She comes across it, and manages to get inside to find the evil toad. And, after poisoning it with some stones, she’s able to retrieve the key, only to find that she’s filthy, her dress is ruined, and she’s missed the dinner. Everyone’s quite mad at her, but she’s more worried about her mother, who is continuing to diminish during her pregnancy. But, that night she’s visited by the faun again, who gives her a magical remedy involving mandrake root to heal her mother, and sets her off on her next task. She’s to take three fairy guides and a piece of magic chalk, and enter the realm of the Pale Man, a child-killing monster. She’s ordered to sneak past the Pale Man and use the golden key to retrieve something from a safe, but is told that if she was to take anything else the Pale Man would awaken and attack. Unfortunately after getting a knife out of the safe she’s tempted by a feast at the Pale Man’s table, causing the creature to awaken and chase her through its home, until she’s finally able to escape. But, by disobeying the Faun’s orders, he becomes enraged, and tells her that she must not actually be the Princess, and refuses to give her her third task.
But, it’s not just Ofelia’s story that is getting complicated. Because while all of this has been going on Captain Vidal has continued to fight against the rebels, and we’ve seen that Mercedes and Carmen’s doctor have both been working against him, aiding the rebels. But, he’s has begun piecing everything together, and after killing the doctor he ends up finding the mandrake root which has been helping Carmen. He destroys it, causing Carmen to suddenly give birth to a son, and die in the process. And, seeing that things are getting much worse, Mercedes tries to escape with the now orphaned Ofelia, but is caught in the process. Ofelia is locked up, and is visited once more by the Faun, who offers her the third task. To bring her newborn brother into the Labyrinth. She escapes the mill with her brother while Vidal is busy dealing with Mercedes and the rebels, and brings him to the Faun. But, once there the Faun reveals the final test is to take the dagger, and spill the blood of an innocent. And, she refuses. The Faun is upset, and begins arguing with Ofelia, which distracts her so that she doesn’t notice that Vidal has found her. Vidal ends up shooting Ofelia, and leaves the Labyrinth with his son, only to find Mercedes and the rebels waiting for him. They take the son, kill Vidal, and then head into the Labyrinth to find Ofelia as the life drains from her. But, we’re left with the image of Ofelia entering a grand palace, and meeting the King and Queen of the Underworld, being welcomed to her rightful place, because she ended up passing the final test, having let her own blood spill rather than killing her brother.
At the risk of repeating myself, it’s just such a genuine shock that this movie had the impact that it did. It’s an excellent film, and one that has held up tremendously well, but it’s also an incredibly weird little piece of film-making. The idea of blend what on the surface feels like a fairly standard fairy tale story, albeit a more classic dark one, with the horrors of the Spanish Civil War is such a gutsy move. But, it pays off. The film is utterly beautiful, like most of del Toro’s works, just absolutely saturated in a fully realized aesthetic. Del Toro is a master at tone and visuals, and the way that he juxtaposes the dark beauty of the fairy tale aspects of the film with the dark ugliness of the war is something that you’d think wouldn’t be easy to pull off, but del Toro manages to accomplish it with seeming ease. It’s a true marvel of a film, and the mixture of effects used to bring its nightmarish reality to life are still completely stunning, especially the jaw-dropping feats of make-up that are accomplished with actor Doug Jones as both the Faun and the Pale Man. But, you can’t forget the human element of the film, wonderfully portrayed, but specifically Ivana Baquero as Ofelia and Sergi Lopez as Captain Vidal. I’ve never seen Baquero in anything else, but she fully brings Ofelia to life, showing us this incredibly sad character who is clinging to some form of hope in her otherwise bleak world, and Lopez puts in a truly extraordinary villainous performance as Vidal, a vicious fascist who stomps through the film putting an end to anything that doesn’t meet his specific worldview, becoming far scarier than anything else in the film.
Which ends up being one of the aspects of Pan’s Labyrinth that I find most fascinating. Guillermo del Toro has made a career out of taking the tropes of fairy tales and folklore and bringing them to a modern world, looking at how our society would interact with these foundational stories that our cultures built. So throughout this film we get to see an epic quest, the revelation that a little girl may actually be a princess, magical guides, fairies, evil monsters, and cursed toads. And yet, there’s also a vain and self-centered fascist who is seeking to kill those different from him. You can read all sorts of insights into what the various monsters featured in the film represent, like the Pale Man being a reference to the Catholic Church, but at the end of the day the most recognizable and terrifying monster in the whole film is Captain Vidal. Because he represents a completely banal evil, an everyday evil that is sadly more common than ever at the moment. We may not live in a world where we need to deal with cursed toads and quests to reveal out magical heritage, but dealing with small-minded fascists is something that can come breaking into our world at any moment. So, sometimes it’s necessary to fade off into a world of fantasy, to keep sane from the horrors of reality. You just need to make sure you don’t sink too deep.
So, at the end of the day, we have yet another film that I’m happily crossing off my Bucket List, and that I highly recommend that you do as well. It’s strange, and certainly not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you can get on the film’s wavelength it’s an immensely rewarding experience.
Pan’s Labyrinth was written and directed by Guillermo del Toro and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.
Categories: The Bucket LIst