Vivisect the Director: Guillermo del Toro and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

While flashy comic book adaptations established Guillermo del Toro as a bankable director in Hollywood, it was his sixth film—and third Spanish-language outing—that brought him the full critical success he deserved. Pan’s Labyrinth is not only a great achievement in fantasy film-making, it’s also the film that finally gave de Toro the clout he needed to have full control in an industry that is infamous for outside interference and micro-managing.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a richly dark fairy tale firmly in the vein of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. A companion piece to the earlier The Devil’s Backbone, this is a young girl’s coming of age in war-torn Spain, where the horrors of war are equally reflected by the horrors of a world full of magic and monsters.

The film opens as young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives at a remote mill-turned-military base with her heavily pregnant mother; the pair have been summoned by Ofelia’s new stepfather, the sadistic General Vidal (Sergi López). As the Spanish Civil War draws to an end, Ofelia finds herself drawn to a mysterious labyrinth behind the mill while the housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) spies on Vidal on behalf of her rebel brother, who is hiding in the woods with his guerilla fighters.

When a mysterious Faun (Doug Jones, who does double duty as the monstrous Pale Man) tells Ofelia that she is the lost daughter of the king of the underworld, she promises to fulfill three dangerous tasks in order to prove her worth and return to his kingdom. What unfolds is a story that is both brutal and beautiful—a balance del Toro is well known for.

Faun, left, and Ofelia, right.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a film that should be required viewing, regardless of your fondness for subtitles. As a reflection on war, it never glosses over unsavory details. There are field amputations, torturous interrogations, merciless executions, and close-quarters combat. It’s often sickening and can be difficult to watch, but it makes for a powerful story and commentary on man’s inhumanity to man.

As a dark fantasy, there are few that come darker. The fairies in Pan’s Labyrinth aren’t sweet and rosy-cheeked cherubs. They’re sharp-faced and unsettling, grimy and clawed. The Faun himself, who can be seen as a guide and protector to Ofelia, isn’t reassuring or sweet, but rather ominous and bestial—you believe him capable of just about anything. It’s made clear that this world of childish wonder and childish nightmares is far from safe for children; the macabre frescos in the Pale Man’s lair would fit right in with the candied witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel.

Everything Ofelia faces is dangerous or disgusting in one way or another. To help her sickly mother she is given a mandrake, a misshapen root creature that demands blood to work its magic. To reclaim a magic key, the girl must creep under strangling roots covered in muck and insects to confront a grotesque toad. And in the world of war, there’s the ever-present threat of chaos, gunfire, and the cruel rage of her new stepfather.

This is not like other fairy tales.

Del Toro knows that the best fairy tales aren’t sanitized; and for all of his love of Disney, he prefers his fantasy to have more bite and blood. There are truly horrific moments and imagery in Pan’s Labyrinth, but there is also beauty and optimism in the face of so much death. Ofelia is the heart of the story, our eyes for most of the tale, and through her we see how making difficult choices with a child’s courage and faith can be more powerful than any adult’s destructive rage. At the end, it is Ofelia who has left a lasting mark on the world, who will be remembered and spoken of—not the villainous Vidal.

The story itself is potent. Combined with the marvelous acting—child actress Baquero is especially moving—the film becomes a visceral gut-punch that stays with the viewer for years. This isn’t a film that makes for easy or light re-watching, but the level of detail and artistry does demand a second viewing.

Captain Vidal: Like in del Toro’s other films, the worst villains are human.

Everything from the carvings on Ofelia’s bed to Vidal’s cracked fob watch is symbolic and meaningful. This being del Toro, clockwork, religion, and insects feature prominently. His signature and saturated color palette, full of deep blues and ambers, mirror the magic or mayhem that unfolds. The soundtrack, supplied by Javier Navarette, is lush and dreamy; the repeated theme is that of a lullaby that only adds to the at times dreamy, at times nightmarish quality of the story.

In his ruminations on war and fairy tales, del Toro always embraces bittersweetness. Good may triumph over evil, but there will always be a cost. Just as a child must sacrifice certain things to become an adult, so must del Toro’s characters offer themselves up in order to make changes that will outlive them.

Pan’s Labyrinth won three Oscars for its makeup, cinematography, and art direction; all were highly deserved. While there’s plenty of sophisticated CGI at work, del Toro will always choose prosthetics and makeup over computer effects. The Faun in particular is a masterpiece, with actor Doug Jones doing brilliant work under that beautiful animatronic mask and costume. With physical sets, locations, and props rather than a preponderance of green screen, there’s a solid sense of place and time to ground the fantastical elements.

Del Toro often tells interviewers that Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone are the films he’s most proud of; he views them as two sides of the same story, a mirrored pair that must be viewed as a cohesive whole. They’re certainly his most emotional, moving, and sophisticated films. Working in his mother language seems to give him an amount of freedom of expression he’s yet to fully attain in his English films.

And while I’m an unabashed fan of his action outings, and will defend their entertainment value to my dying breath, it’s true that Pan’s and Devil’s should rightfully be the movies del Toro goes down in cinematic history for. They’re his greatest contributions (thus far) to the art form, and well deserving of the “modern classic” status critics occasionally bandy about.

So you’re not really into subtitled films? So what? Watch Pan’s Labyrinth regardless. So you think fantasy is just for kids or pimply dorks addicted to Skyrim and Dungeons & Dragons? Doesn’t matter—watch Pan’s Labyrinth. If you’ve got a heart and a working mind, do yourself a favor and watch Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s easily one of the most moving and beautiful (and, yes, horrific) movies released in the past 20 years. If anything can convince you of del Toro’s genius and vision, it’s Pan’s Labyrinth.


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.

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