Yes, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is that good. Director Guillermo del Toro, he of Hellboy fame, was clearly out to prove that given solid material, sufficient devotion, and a lack of Hollywood oversight, he could deliver a contender.
True, Pan does invite several divisive questions, such as why must contemporary filmed violence be so jarringly graphic? Del Toro loves jets of blood almost as much as that eternal child-man, Quentin Tarantino, and he indulges himself more than once along his tale’s labyrinthine path. But is it necessary? Does the vivid bloodletting aid the narrative? Pan is a hybrid, true, a film about war and revolution, and such chronicles cannot easily avoid bloodshed. But as anyone who has ever seen Pan’s sewing and stitching scene can attest, this movie achieves prime “I can’t look!” status. It’s visceral; it hurts.
Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) also begs a second question, perhaps even more sinister: is it allowable to put a child (or child character) into such peril? Pan doesn’t pull its punches. Our heroine, young Ofelia (played with no affectation whatsoever by Ivana Baquero), is in mortal danger throughout this film, and unlike, say, Harry Potter or Buffy (Slayer of the Dentally Challenged Undead), there is no guarantee she will survive.
Many horror and dark fantasy magazines specifically state in their writer’s guidelines that they will not consider stories in which children are maimed, mutilated, abused, etc., and in some cases, these guidelines take an even more conservative tack, proscribing any story in which a child is at the center of a grim, potentially lethal plot.
Why, then, is such danger entirely de rigueur in the movies?
Without question, imperiled children are the norm throughout the history of story, and with (so far as I know) no cultural exceptions. The Russian girl who confronts Baba Yaga is clearly in danger, as is the African boy who ultimately slays the giant, Abiyoyo. In the non-Disneyfied versions of Aladdin (a Persian tale, with Chinese roots) and Pinnochio (Italian), the youthful heroes are frequently pushed to the limits of safety and sanity.
Sanity, of course, has some relation to the verb “to sanitize,” and that is precisely what “civilized” society has been handing consumers for at least the last hundred and fifty years. Fairy tales get dumbed down, or amusingly “fractured”; pundits explain that the original, crueler versions of the Brothers Grimm, etc., are too raw and frightening for today’s (otherwise indestructible) children.
Del Toro clearly believes otherwise.
Call Pan’s Labyrinth a throwback, then, an intentional protest against the pabulum our taste-maker masters feed us. The film is a dare from moment one: stick it out, if you can, all ye intrepid, hardy film-goers. Those with a strong stomach and a curious mind will, of course, soldier on, while those with a sensitive heart will be in the gravest danger of all.
Consider the opening. We meet Ofelia and her mother as they travel by motorcade through Franco’s “revolutionary” Spain, on the way to meet with Ofelia’s new (and brutal) father, Capitan Vidal, who runs a military outpost and hunts rebels with the dedication of a Great White shark stalking prey. During a quick stop in the endless pine forests, Ofelia finds a peculiar stone in the road. After picking it up, she realizes it is a missing piece for a stumpy stone gargoyle, lost amidst the bracken.
Nor is it just any missing piece: it is an eye. When Ofelia clicks the stone into place, she metaphorically gives eyesight to the blind, and in turn awakens the magical forces that have been lying dormant all around her. Out pops a creature, a guide, an insect. A fairy?
Whatever it is, it looks decidedly suspicious. Thus Del Toro immediately establishes one of the film’s primary themes, that of trust. Does Ofelia dare trust her mother’s decision to marry this obviously vile officer, Capitan Vidal? Can she trust the Capitan’s housemaid, Mercedes? And above all, can she trust her new friend, this clicking, shape-shifting fairy?
If the fairy seems duplicitous, inscrutable, and diabolical, just wait until it leads her into el laberinto where, in what appears to be a vast and very deep well, she meets el fauno, the faun.
This is not a C.S. Lewis faun, no, no. We are a long way from Mr. Tumnus. This faun is eight feet tall, has legs like tree trunks, and sports a decidedly demonic aspect. It promises Ofelia the world, yes, but only if she completes three tasks, none of which will be safe, and the details of both how and why remain, thanks to the shadowy faun, very sketchy.
Monsters are as monsters do, and in Pan’s Labyrinth, the notion that at least some of the monsters are human is never up for debate. But what to make of the monsters that hide in Ofelia’s labyrinth?
I won’t divulge any more of the plot. Never fear, significant spoilers will not here be found.
But I am forced to say this: so often in fantasy, the question with which we are left at the end is, “Was it all a dream?” In this brutal, cunning film, we must ask instead, “Was the dream a lie?”
That, my friends, is a far more devastating question.
‘Til next time.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.” In other work, Rigney is the author of “The Skates,” and its haunted sequels, “Sleeping Bear,” and Check-Out Time. His website is markrigney.net.