Year of Release: 2006 Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergei Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil, and Doug Jones.
“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” – attributed to G. K. Chesterton, probably erroneously. I’ve also heard Neil Gaiman might have said something along those lines.
Regardless of who actually came up with that pithy saying on the importance of fairy tales, it is a very accurate summary of my favorite aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth, a beautifully shot fairy tale that alternates between the end of the Spanish Civil War and the labyrinth of the faun: a world of fairies, giant toads, mandrakes, and a magical underground kingdom. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) spends equal time in both worlds after a mysterious and not at all safe Faun (Doug Jones) gives her three tasks to complete in order to return to her underground kingdom as the princess she truly is.
As Ofelia says in the opening voice over, there is a legend that says many years ago the princess of the underground wandered away and left her kingdom. She took on a mortal body and died, but her father knew that one day her spirit would enter the body of another girl and she would return. When the Faun appears and tells Ofelia she is that girl, Ofelia is eager to believe him as a way of escaping the cruel dragons she must face day to day in the form of her stepfather (Sergei Lopez), the sadistic captain of the Spanish fascist army. Ofelia has also read so many fairy tales, to the consternation of her mother (Ariadna Gil), that she naturally believes the stories are true. After discovering a birthmark on her shoulder as proof of her royal lineage, Ofelia begins the three tasks.
Whether there really is a fantasy world, or whether the faun and the tasks are created by Ofelia’s vivid imagination as a way of coping with her sadistic step-father and very sick mother, is unclear and besides the point. The fairy tales cast the cold, brutal world that Ofelia inhabits in a new light where evil monsters are destroyed, the sick regain health, and the suffering innocent are rewarded.
Each tasks of Ofelia’s mirrors a challenge she or another protagonist is facing in the real world. Both of them must acquire an important key from a monster for their first challenge. The self-discipline that Ofelia learns from the second task is a skill which the rebel soldiers also need to learn for their second attack on the army base. Both Ofelia and the soldiers suffer similar consequences for failing to keep their desires in check.
Unfortunately, the one dimensional stock villains and heroes are not any less frustrating on repeat viewing. Admittedly fairy tales often have simple characters, and the real world humans are meant to parallel the characters and situations Ofelia encounters in the labyrinth. But compared to the detailed craftsmanship laboriously and lovingly poured into the fantasy world, its characters, and scenarios; the simplistic real world with its stereotypical good-guys and bad-guys is disappointing in comparison.
However, it is difficult to focus on that one weak aspect when the rest of the film is breathtaking, beautiful, and remarkably profound regarding the importance of fairy tales, as it tells one of the most impressive fairy tales of recent years. Del Toro also saves the most beautiful image for the end, suggesting that even in a world as dark as Ofelia’s there can still be a happily ever after of eternal bliss.
Content Advisory: Graphic and gory violence including torture, mutilation, and deadly gunplay; and some obscene language. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A-