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Grim Fairytale – Pan’s Labyrinth at 15

6 min read

Studio Canal/Warner Bros.

No other filmmaker working today understands monsters like Guillermo del Toro. A modern-day James Whale, his wonderfully imagined creatures often contain a soft heart underneath, and like The Shape of Water's Elisa, it's all too easy to find ourselves falling in love with them in some way. Although the Mexican director had impressed critics with his earlier features Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, more mainstream success with audiences would follow with comic-book adaptations Blade II and Hellboy. However, it was del Toro's sixth feature, Pan's Labyrinth, that would cement the filmmaker as a creative force to be seen the world over.

In Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro tells a tale of two opposing sides, that of earthly versus cold reality. Between them is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl with a love for books and fairytales who has moved to the Spanish countryside with her pregnant, loving mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil). This is no leisurely trip, however, as they are there to meet Ofelia's new stepfather, the sadistic Captain Vidal, a fascist officer hell-bent on hunting down each and every last member of the Maquis, a group of Spanish resistance fighters. While staying in the country outpost, Ofelia's fantasies start to come true as she is led by a fairy to an ancient labyrinth where she meets a mystical faun. The creature tells her she is the reincarnation of the fabled Princess Moanna, whose soul had wandered the mortal plane having forgotten her true identity. Ofelia is presented with three tasks which, if completed, will return her to her rightful kingdom in the fantasy realm, but while frightening creatures await her on her quest, a very real kind of evil has already begun to take over her life.


Looking at Guillermo del Toro's filmography is almost like peering into the mind of the man himself, or, perhaps more accurately, like gazing at his bookshelf. Each film gives an idea of the types of stories and films that del Toro so dearly loves. The Devil's Backbone and Crimson Peak show a fondness of ghost stories; Pacific Rim is a bombastic love letter to Japanese kaiju cinema such as Gojira; and even his two Hellboy films manage to represent a passion for both comics and H.P. Lovecraft's eldritch .

Studio Canal/Warner Bros.

And so, Pan's Labyrinth represents the worlds of fantasy that del Toro spent years of his life comfortably living in. The film is filled with references to classic literature such as David Copperfield and The Wizard of Oz, but the most obvious comparison that comes to mind, not lost on the filmmaker, is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The story of a young girl finding an escape from real life through a fantasy world may seem familiar – down to Ofelia's Alice-inspired pinafore dress – but while Alice was merely troubled by boredom, Ofelia's worries are far greater. Living in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the vicious claws of fascism hold onto the country at all costs.


This ruthless authoritarianism is perfectly personified by Captain Vidal, a man who is so focused on his cause that he becomes passive to anything else. Our first glimpse of his unforgiving personality comes as he brutally kills a father and son suspected of helping the resistance. The father is shot, but not before witnessing his son having his face smashed in with a bottle. In the end, they are found to be innocent, but this matters not to Vidal. The lives of others have become inconsequential – all except his unborn child. In perhaps his coldest moment, he calmly orders the doctor to save the baby and let Carmen die when it seems she may not survive the childbirth. Passing down his Falangist regime to the next generation, as his father did to him, is all that matters. In a film of monsters, Vidal is the most disturbing one of all.


Of course, this would be no fantasy film without some impressive creatures, and Pan gives cinema some of its most extraordinary beasts ever, both played by del Toro's lucky-charm-in-prosthetics, . After working with the director on Mimic and Hellboy, Jones stepped back into the make-up chair to endure five hours of prosthetic application each day to give him the look of the wooden, naturistic Faun, and though he was later dubbed by Pablo Adán (who also narrates the film), the English-speaking actor learned his lines in Spanish for maximum authenticity. The enigmatic Faun appears older at first, twitching and shambling his way around the screen, but as Ofelia completes her tasks, he seems to age backwards, getting younger each time we see him. By far the most mysterious character in the film, the Faun provides a scarcely found source of warmth and encouragement for Ofelia, guiding her through her quest – a quest that leads her into the lair of Jones' second character: the Pale Man.

Studio Canal/Warner Bros.

Hyberbole be damned. In a career built on ghosts and monsters of all shapes and sizes, the Pale Man is the most terrifying thing to come out of 's imagination. Ofelia's second task sees her retrieve a dagger from an ornately decorated room featuring a table piled high with the most luxurious food imaginable. At the head of the table sits the Pale Man, an apparently sightless thing with sagging skin and long, clawed fingertips. Warned by the Faun not to eat a single crumb of food, Ofelia succumbs to temptation, awakening the Pale Man who hungers for the blood of children. What follows is the stuff of every child's (and some adults') nightmares as the mewling monstrosity places its eyeballs into the cavities in its hands and begins to furiously hunt her down. Reportedly, during a screening with Stephen King, even the horror maestro was squirming in his seat. High praise, indeed.


Jones' duel casting is not to be overlooked, as the Pale Man may be either a pawn of the Faun's, or the creature himself in disguise. That duality is at the core of the film as each character compellingly struggles with the choices they must face. Doctor Ferreiro and Mercedes the housekeeper have their own ties to the rebel fighters who Vidal is gunning down, and a great deal of the film's tension is found in their scenes as we wait for them to be caught. Ofelia, on the verge of losing her childhood innocence, fights to hold onto the fantasy world she desperately wants to be a part of as her mother and stepfather pull her back to reality. Even in that relationship, there is a strong sense that the previously-widowed Carmen is not with Vidal for love, but out of necessity to keep her family taken care of.


Del Toro had at one time conceived of Pan following Carmen's journey into the labyrinth, but eventually found that the experiences of a pre-pubescent girl at the height of innocence would make for a far more interesting story to tell. That decision, along with the casting of the 11-year-old Ivana Baquero (who won a Goya award for her performance) as the central character of Ofelia, makes Pan's Labyrinth what it is. We understand her, we fear for her, and, most of all, we hope that she can find her way out of the dangerous world she inhabits. The film's finale – a merciless gut-punch – may seem just that way at first, but del Toro assures us that there is a happy ending to be found. The signs are there, “visible only to those that know where to look.”

Studio Canal/Warner Bros.

Following a standing ovation at the Cannes film festival, Pan's Labyrinth celebrated a great number of awards across the globe, with a lot of attention justly going to David Martí and Montse Ribé's astonishing make-up work. In a tremendous year for Mexican cinema, del Toro joined his contemporaries Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) in bringing three critical darlings to the global cinema landscape, cementing their places as some of the most unique, visionary minds working in film today.


To watch Pan's Labyrinth and think of it having come from another mind is unfathomable. The film is Guillermo del Toro through and through – a wonderfully designed creation willing to challenge its audience with a story told in a way only del Toro can. Alongside the greatest fantasy stories like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, a space should be made on every shelf across the globe for Pan's Labyrinth.

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