In the ten years since Pan’s Labyrinth debuted in cinemas, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has become a household name in geek culture. He is one of our most celebrated auteurs right now, so we wait with bated breath to hear what he’s doing next. But of all his films, Pan’s Labyrinth may the most cherished by fans and critics. It won three out of its six Oscar nominations, winning against movies like The Prestige and Children of Men. Now, Pan’s Labyrinth has finally got its due. The Criterion Collection has inducted the movie into their ranks and given it the Blu-ray release it always deserved.
Pan’s Labyrinth is, first and foremost, a fairy tale. Set in Spain in 1944, the story follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a girl with a love of fairy tales. She and her pregnant mother move out to the country to join Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s fascist stepfather. Vidal’s base of military operations is a huge flour mill, but a nearby stone labyrinth holds an ancient secret. When Ofelia wanders inside, a creepy faun (Doug Jones) gives her three tasks. Upon completion, Ofelia will re-join her birth parents: the fairy king and queen of the underworld.
While this simple fairy tale is the A story, the core, it’s not enough to support a two-hour movie. So the B story manages to be just as engaging — if not more so. Captain Vidal and his troops are trying to wipe out the last remnants of Maquis resistance fighters in the nearby woods. But there are Maquis sympathizers right under his nose, providing them with supplies and medical aid. While Ofelia is off getting in trouble, the adults take part in a war drama that is just as gripping as del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone.
While Vidal and his staff deal with the horrors of war, Ofelia’s horrors are much more fantastic. Her first task is to kill a giant toad and retrieve a key from its belly, which proves simple enough. But in the process, she ruins her pretty new dress and must go to bed without supper. Ofelia’s fundamental flaw — her disregard for the rules — is also her virtue. And in the remaining two tasks, she defies direct orders from the faun.
It’s part of what makes Ofelia a frustrating protagonist. We want to see her escape this violent, fascist household. But the poor girl can’t follow instructions to save her life. When she stayed with her mother in the city, her flights of fancy were relatively harmless. But near the labyrinth, they’re dangerous. There could be grave consequences for an act as small as stealing grapes from a monster’s banquet.
We want to hold Ofelia to a higher standard because we are adults. And as adults, we look down our noses at her and expect more. We want to grab this kid by the shoulders and tell her to quit being so careless. And that’s perfectly normal, because she’s just a kid on the verge of a transition into the adult world. Should she know better? Probably not. But Vidal, the towering adult in her life, is a cruel bastard who made a living out of following orders without questioning them.
Vidal and Ofelia’s mother show the young girl a model of adulthood — pregnancy, illness, violence, and death. It’s no wonder Ofelia needs an escape from it all. And that’s where the film calls its fantasy into question. Is any of it real, or are the fantastical elements all projections of Ofelia’s active imagination? Whether it’s real or not isn’t terribly important. The faun, the Pale Man, and the frog are real enough for Ofelia. The movie all but refuses to acknowledge if Ofelia really is a fairy princess. But it doesn’t do much to make you doubt it, either.
Real or not, actress Ivana Baquero had to sell it all as real. For the most part, she does it. Del Toro entrusted her with a lot — maybe too much. Baquero’s performance is certainly capable. But she was a kid, and kid actors rarely give the kinds of lead performances than can carry such unrelenting grimness. So Ofelia is upstaged by Vidal (Sergi Lopez) and the rebel sympathizer Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), and not just because of their great performances. They’re more interesting characters on paper, too. But in Pan’s Labyrinth, the real star is the style, and it performs with incredible gusto.
While some of the computer-enhanced moments have not aged well in ten years, the film is still a masterwork of production design and creature effects. The film is a slice of del Toro’s brain — it only could have come from him. Like David Lynch, del Toro seems to channel some arcane frequency from another world. He uses cinema to rebroadcast those transmissions to all of us.
And fairy tales are a wonderful format for that because they don’t adhere to contemporary narrative conventions. Visualized on screen, they can feel too childish for adults, but too violent for children. But Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t a film for wide audiences. Released at the height of Harry Potter mania, Pan’s Labyrinth approached its fantasy with almost no sense of wonder. It gave us a much more traditional fairy tale that shocked audiences with grotesque violence and frightening creatures. But the film found its niche, and ten years later, Pan’s Labyrinth stands as the best fairy tale of the 21st century.