The fairy tales of yore were not sanitized little moral fables, but stories of dread and blood and fire. People have described Pan’s Labyrinth as “a fairytale for grown-ups”, and they are right in more ways than one. Yes, it’s a fairytale in the old-school sense of the word, and it’s aimed at adults, but mainly because it’s about how a child’s sense of fantasy can be used to transcend the cruelty — and moral ambivalence — of the adult world. This is not something a child may understand immediately, but then again, perhaps they will — although I’m guessing only an adult would have the perspective to see it the way it’s intended here.
Labyrinth spans two worlds: a subterranean fantasyland conjured up in the mind of a young girl, Ofelia (an outstanding Ivana Baquero) and the girl’s own world, which happens to be the violent landscape of Franco’s Spain in 1944. Ofelia and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), are sent to live with her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a high-ranking Army officer stationed in a strategically-positioned villa. Rebels in the forest wait to strike, but Ofelia’s mind is not on any of these things. She fears for her mother — pregnant with what is promised to be a brother, and ill enough that there is fear she may not survive the delivery. But she has her giant hoard of books, which she’s lugged with her to the villa, and she has her imagination to keep her mind from being lionized by the ugliness around her.
The world of Ofelia's imagination gives her solace in the world of Franco's Spain
especially since her father is a captain in the Fascist army, and she little more than an inconvenience to him.
Just outside the villa is a stone labyrinth, which Ofelia explores fearlessly until she is drawn into its underground central chamber. There she encounters none other than the faun Pan (Doug Jones), who has a startling revelation for her: she’s none other than the reincarnation of the daughter of the King of the Underworld. For the full extent of her powers to be unlocked, she must complete three tasks by the next full moon. What’s most striking is not the missions themselves, or even the presence of Pan or his fairy minions, but the way Ofelia reacts to all of these things: she’s startled and surprised, but also determined to face all of this head-on. You could argue that she has the courage most children have: they’re only brave because they don’t really understand how frail they truly are, or how dangerous the world can be at its worst.
Ofelia’s labors are also built up out of the substance of the darkest of fairy tales. For her first trial, she has to feed three magic stones to a gigantic, revolting-looking toad that lives in the cavernous inside of a giant tree — an ordeal that leaves her slathered with insects and mud, and (much to the chagrin of the adults around her) also ruins her brand-new dress. Later, she has to create a magic doorway to her bedroom and retrieve a golden key from the banquet hall of a bizarre, eyeless creature with the most ghastly appetites. Most difficult of all to conquer, though, is the growing sense of ambivalence she feels about what she is doing: is it really all a child’s pastime, or is there some more sinister meaning under it all?
In her imagination, Ofelia meets the god Pan, who tasks her to restore herself
to immortality as the resurrection of the Princess of the Underworld.
Vidal has no patience for Ofelia’s game-playing, but only because he has no patience for anything other than total obedience. He’s a strutting, brutal dandy, also playing dress-up in his own way, living out the fantasy of being a powerful and important man — except that he’s been given sanction to do it all for real, and his gun kills for real as well. He prizes his wife for her womb, and nothing more; when she hemorrhages, he barks orders at the doctor the way he commands his lieutenants. Ofelia is even less useful to him, and he flies into a rage when she uses one of Pan’s provided nostrums to help her mother back to health.
The movie looks wonderful, of course: even the so-called mundane scenes glow with color, and the special effects are as cutting-edge and seamless as they come. Pan and his pixies (one of whom transforms into a stick insect as a disguise) have the same convincing onscreen presence as any of the other characters, but that’s as much due to a strong screenplay as it is the hard work of the CGI team. What’s also interesting is how the real world is about as strikingly photographed as Ofelia’s fantasies. The net effect is to make us feel that the two are, in fact, not discrete entities: they’re flipsides of the same thing, and the closer we get to the end the more we realize this is important in a way that’s not readily obvious.
The film's weaving of its two worlds soon shows that they are part of the same process:
to transcend the evil that lies all around by doing some measure of good.
As the movie unfolded, I noticed two things. One is how deftly the movie switches between Ofelia’s fantasy and the reality of the fascists — both of which have their fair share of blood and terror. The other is the ultimate meaning of Ofelia’s dream-life, and what develops from that turns out to be the movie’s entire moral message. I half-expected an ending where Pan reveals himself to Vidal and tears him to shreds, but the film aims higher than that. What the girl has been seeking in her daydreams is not revenge, but moral courage — the ability to do the right thing even when the circumstances seem hopeless. In short, she is trying to find the same things that the members of the resistance in and around the villa are also seeking, especially after Vidal captures and unmasks several of their number and torments them mercilessly.
Pan was directed by Guillerimo del Toro, who gave us Blade II and Hellboy, both of which started as Hollywood genre entertainments but blossomed under his touch into bigger and better things. Blade II in particular improved that much more with each revision; the story itself was only fair, but the way del Toro looked at the story and invested it with fun details made it all the more enjoyable. If Pan had been an exclusively American production, the graphics and hardware would have overwhelmed everything else, but del Toro knows better, and here he’s created something that I can describe most properly as a moral fable.