Watching Pan’s Labyrinth doesn’t just deliver the joy of seeing a well-made film. It doesn’t just deliver the wonder of a darkly beautiful fantasy brought to life. Watching Pan’s Labyrinth gives you the excitement of experiencing a filmmaker blossoming into true greatness, a director taking his spot alongside the other genius fantasists of cinema.
Guillermo del Toro has made a film that reinforces what many of us knew long before – he’s not just one of film’s greatest visual artists but is also one of the form’s consummate storytellers, a man with as much human empathy as design sense. His film brings together many of his favorite images and themes to create a new and breathtaking whole, a summation of his career to this point.
In many ways Pan’s is a sequel to The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro’s previous best work. He again returns to the Spanish Civil War, and he again sets the action in a regimented and isolated world – then it was an orphanage in a desert, here it’s a military outpost in forested mountains. Young fairy tale lover Ofelia and her very pregnant mother come to the outpost to join the new man in their life, Captain Vidal. He’s Ofelia’s stepfather, and the biological father of the baby to be, a baby he is sure will be a son and must be born near him.
On the way to the outpost Ofelia discovers an ancient pagan idol, awakening what seems to be a fairy. At the outpost itself the fairy leads the girl to a maze that stands behind the main building; this labyrinth, we’re told, predates Christianity. And deep in its heart lives a satyr who tells Ofelia that she’s the lost princess of the fairy realm, and who gives her three tasks to accomplish before she can return home.
Meanwhile the woods around the outpost are filled with rebels, and they have moles inside Vidal’s own staff. The Captain underestimates the rebels’ numbers, one of many touches that resonates with the modern conflict in Iraq, a war whose insurgency was, we were told, in its final throes in 2005. The rebels harass the outpost and raid its supplies; Vidal strikes back every time with brutality, even when the people captured aren’t rebels at all.
Vidal is destined to take a place in the pantheon of great villains. Brutal and cruel, he personally oversees torture sessions. At one point he graphically beats in a man’s face with a wine bottle. And yet he’s not a two-dimensional monster; actor Sergi Lopez brings an evil charm and frightening reality to the man while del Toro’s script fleshes him out into a full human being. Vidal isn’t being evil just for the sake of being evil – he truly believes in his cause and truly believes that what he’s doing is right. He’s a three-dimensional monster, a man whose blind obedience to a terrible ideology allows him to indulge many of his worst impulses.
Ofelia is just as much of a believer as Vidal. She believes completely and thoroughly in the world of fairies, and she believes in what the satyr tells her, despite the fact that he’s a fairly creepy looking monster with hooves for feet and big horns on his head. But Ofelia is not like her step-father in that she’s not blindly obedient to the satyr, she doesn’t just do as she’s told. In the end it’s that trait which gives her salvation.
In The Devil’s Backbone del Toro wove his ghost story very tightly into the Spanish Civil War setting; here the fairy tale echoes and reflects what’s going on with Vidal. The stories aren’t separate and in fact they’re totally complementary. I believe that either could stand on its own, but it’s when they’re together that del Toro’s themes resonate the strongest. It’s fitting that these two characters and their two stories should be so intertwined, as there is a consistent theme of duality running throughout the film, from the way the center of the labyrinth goes between magical and non-magical states, the double lives of the two rebel moles and even Vidal’s most unguarded moments, which take place in front of a mirror.
I must admit that duality wasn’t something that was occurring to me while watching the film. Pan’s Labyrinth is filled with meaty thematic elements and the ending will certainly send people out of the theater to debate what exactly has happened, but while it’s a movie that works well on an intellectual level it’s also one that grabs you on an emotional level, which is how I found myself responding to it. The movie is del Toro’s saddest; almost every frame is permeated with sadness. When the movie opens many of the characters have already made the choices that will send them to their eventual fates – in fact it could be argued that Ofelia is really the only character still making active decisions throughout the movie. But even she’s sad; besides being unhappy with her new stepfather and her new home, Ofelia is getting to the age where she’s expected to leave childish things behind. She’s too old for fairy tales, everyone tells her, yet she still finds herself drawn to them.
The look of the film is evocative; while only a small amount of Pan’s running time occurs in any place that could be considered fairyland, the whole movie is set in a medieval looking compound in a primeval forest. It’s 1944 but everything is slightly out of time, lending every scene a delicate otherworldliness. And even the fantasy worlds that Ofelia comes to visit – the impossibly huge interior of a tree, or a strange castle with a dining room set with a dangerous banquet – don’t feel that far removed from the reality of the outpost.
Which isn’t to say that the inhabitants of these worlds would be at home on the compound. The creature effects in Pan are mostly old fashioned and practical, and look like they came fully formed from the darkest depths of del Toro’s psyche. Doug Jones, Abe Sapien from Hellboy, has a dual role here. He’s not just the satyr of the title but also the Pale Man, a horrible monster whose eyes are in his palms and whose legs are wasted atrocities. I’m a 32 year old man but I have still found that monster haunting me when the lights are out. The world of Pan also includes strange and playful little fairies and a grotesque giant toad, all lovingly realized (although the fairies are CGI they’re well done).
That world also feels like a fairy tale world, made up of rules that almost feel like dream logic – Ofelia must get an item at the dangerous banquet but must not eat any food. Tasks have to be accomplished by the full moon (a symbol of the girl’s impending first menstruation?). The giant toad has to be fed a magic stone. And of course, being a dark reflection of Ofelia’s story, Vidal’s world has its own logic, born not from dreams but their exact opposite, fascist cruelty.
I’m trying to write this review without revealing anything but the bare minimum about the film and its story. Pan isn’t a twisty tale, so I don’t think plot points would spoil the film for you, but it’s a movie that needs to be experienced for the first time as purely as possible. It’s a movie that I think will divide people – not in terms of quality but in terms of meaning. Pan is a film that will challenge you in some ways and will reinforce your own beliefs in other ways. I know that it’s a film that has forced me to think a lot about what a happy ending is, on a very basic level. It’s also a robust film – it doesn’t fall apart under close scrutiny but rather invites it. Pan is a movie that makes for excellent and thoughtful post-theater discussion.
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the best films of 2006. The bar has been raised not just for del Toro but also for his contemporaries. Anyone attempting to make a serious fantastical film has long been having to live up to the work of Gilliam and Cronenberg – now you can add Guillermo del Toro to that list. I know you may be frustrated reading this, knowing you’re going to have wait more months for the film to finally be released. I feel the same way; Pan’s Labyrinth is a film of breathtaking emotional, thematic and visual depth, and I know I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what the movie has to offer. I can’t wait to see this again.