Pan’s Labyrinth has been marketed as a “fairy tale for adults,” and perhaps for lack of other categorization, it is. It has fanciful elements that could be compared to stories by Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen, but this tale is even darker and more gruesome than many adult stories — fairy tale or otherwise. What it certainly is NOT is a fairy tale for children, though the previews can be slightly misleading. If you've considered bringing a child or even a squeamish adult to this movie, don't. If I saw this movie as a child, I would have never slept again, and I may actually have that problem now.
The film is unbelievably gory and disgusting, yet it is also one of the most wonderful movies I’ve seen in a long time. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, who brought us Hellboy and Blade II, the Spanish-language movie is a fantasy that unfolds in a very real and frightening setting: Franco’s post-Spanish Civil War Spain, 1944. A sense of darkness and desperation permeates the entire film, but it is really a story about a little girl’s journey towards hope, so
Ivana Baquero plays Ofelia, a dreamy young girl who travels with her mother to live with Ofelia's new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), at his military outpost in the countryside. The Captain is a coldhearted, ruthlessly cruel man, surrounded by people who live in fear of him. Meanwhile, a group of revolutionaries hiding in the woods are plotting Captain Vidal's downfall. Ofelia tries to stay by her mother, Carmen (Adriana Gil), who is enduring a very difficult pregnancy. Afraid and lonely, Ofelia wanders in the forest near the outpost and discovers an ancient labyrinth. There she meets the “Fauno,” or Pan, a large satyr with a deep voice, at times comforting and then fierce. He informs her that she is actually a princess and that her regal father has been searching for her for ages. In order to get back to her rightful family, she must complete certain tasks dictated by the Fauno. Reality, however, has other things in store, and the rest of the film alternates between the terrifying “real world” unfolding in the Captain’s home and the “other world” where she desperately works toward completing her tasks.
The “other world” is by turns enchanting and horrifying. Yes, there are darling little fairies that flit about Ofelia’s head, but there is also a bloody-fingered monster with eyeballs on his palms who rips the heads off fairies and noisily chomps their bloody skulls. When Ofelia, covered in roach-like insects, encounters a giant frog who literally throws himself up along with his gelatinous innards, I felt like I might just do the same.
The sound design on this movie is remarkable. Every flutter of fairy wings, every singed-paper sound from the Captain's cigarette, and especially the deep timbre of the Fauno’s voice are crisp and clear to a stunning degree. This also means, however, that during a bludgeoning scene, we can hear the process it goes from dull thudding to the wet crunch of bones and blood.
If we were to indeed lump this story into the genre in which Lord of the Rings reigns, there is a key, notable difference: The likes of LOTR or other fantasy stories generally focus on male protagonists who go on adventures to accomplish things, while females are largely irrelevant, thrown in as mild love interests or the harbingers of some message. This story, while grim and macabre, is also beautiful, and the characters who exhibit the most bravery, sacrifice, and cleverness are female. Dark and dismal as Pan's Labyrinth is, the golden thread of Ofelia's determination throughout the plot is unmistakable, and in the end, it is ultimately the story of a little girl who grittily fights her way toward hope and light.