I was 17 when I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth. It was a DVD rental on a weekend at my dad’s house, something my not-quite-adult self had picked up out of appreciation for Guillermo del Toro’s previous genre films, Blade II and Hellboy. Mr. del Toro stood out to me in a way that no other director at the time had, a uniquely graphic visionary who manages to balance dark themes with cinematographic fancy that not only makes the fantastical come to life, but also tangible and human. Where normal fantasy elevates the unusual into larger-than-life spectacle, del Toro is gifted at bringing a sense of normalcy to the otherworldly, yet never to the extent where it becomes mundane or stops being just a bit off. So when I pitched del Toro’s previous films as the reason to rent Pan’s Labyrinth, my father and brother were on board… until the subtitles came on and it became clear that epic fantasy brawls weren’t going to be the order of the day. So my family quickly grew bored and dispersed, but I remained, determined to see just what exactly my latest directorial discovery was doing making an artsy historical film. I was not disappointed.
The story centers on Ofelia, a child in 1944 Spain swept up by the marriage and pregnancy of her widowed mother to Captain Vidal, a Falange officer tracking down rebel forces in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Despite her mother’s insistence that Ofelia refer to the Captain as her father, it quickly becomes clear that the Captain is a petty, violent, and jealous man, intent on proving his superiority by eliminating the rebel forces and fathering a successor to his name even at the expense of his new wife’s life. Ofelia, being but a child amidst a very adult conflict that she doesn’t entirely understand, finds a labyrinth outside the Captain’s camp, where one night she finds a fawn. He tells Ofelia that she is actually Princess Moanna, the princess of the underworld who was lost to the human realm many years ago. In order to reclaim her birthright, Ofelia must complete three tasks that will pit her against ferocious monsters and her own childish insecurities.
What’s initially strange about the film is that it gives equal weight to the Falange-rebel conflict as it does to the fantasy arc that the film is marketed on, but what arises from that unique juxtaposition is remarkable. An investment in the human drama makes the fantastical elements all the more so when the film cuts back to Ofelia’s quests. Ofelia’s increasingly harrowing trials start to show that perhaps the monsters aren’t quite so bad as the human monster she must share a roof with. It would be easy for the film to paint any of its characters in caricaturistic extremes, yet both the villainous Captain and the ambiguous Fawn feel grounded enough where their motivations aren’t transparent or unrealistic.
Accompanying that grounded sensibility, though, is del Toro’s signature artistic eye for the dark and mysterious. The CGI of the time does feel somewhat dated on a modern viewing, but it’s used sparingly and only when necessary to deliver the kinds of gross or dynamic shots that del Toro specializes in. Where the film really shines is in its use of practical effects and creature designs. The fawn and the Pale Man in particular are iconic of the film’s special effects wizardry. They are jerky, almost mechanical creatures that would feel fake were it not for the fact that they are physically present, staring us face to face (or in the Pale Man’s case, face to hand-eyes).
Yet the most vital aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth’s beauty—and perhaps the biggest reason it endures as a classic even 10 years after its release—is the exact reason why my father and brother didn’t appreciate the film: It’s a commentary on escapist fantasy. By marrying the fantastical to the darkest horrors of reality, Guillermo del Toro deftly crafted a fairy tale that doesn’t allow you to simply tune in and turn off your brain. Ofelia may be escaping into her fantasy realm, the reality of which is left entirely up to interpretation, but we as the audience are forced to cope with the dark realities of war, torture, greed, arrogance, and humanity. The darkness of the fantasy may be tonally consistent with the bleakness of life, but there is hope in the fantasy; both are vital aspects of our day-to-day existence. Pan’s Labyrinth is a film designed to remind us that our myths and legends exist in a cultural context, and that escapist entertainment exists so that we may do just that: escape. Although that’s what most of us do when we sit down to watch a movie, at the end of the day we still have to come back to our reality, no matter how bleak it may be. It’s through putting reality and fantasy in stark contrast that Pan’s Labyrinth shows us just how important they both are.
‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ saw its initial limited release in U.S. and Canadian theaters on this day in 2006.