A decade ago, Pan’s Labyrinth opened in theaters. The last ten years have been very kind to Guillermo del Toro’s dark fable, cementing the movie among the best fantasy films of all time. Thanks to impeccable storytelling and an unlikely mashup of genres, Pan’s Labyrinth remains a rarity in the filmmaking industry, even for del Toro himself. Though the director’s filmography is replete with sweeping narratives and grand spectacles, Pan’s Labyrinth reached an echelon of artistic integrity that has set the bar for the rest of his career.
Amid his staggeringly creative oeuvre, what makes Pan the most enduring? However thrilling Cronos, Blade II, the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim may be, they are overshadowed by the Spanish fantasy for a single reason: Pan’s Labyrinth is comprised entirely of Guillermo del Toro’s creative vision, his life experience, and his appreciation for history. As is customary with legendary films such as this, Pan’s Labyrinth proposed major thematic contradictions that would’ve failed in the command of a lesser filmmaker. Somehow, Guillermo del Toro turned his ambitious vision into the best movie of his career.
Del Toro’s Vision
Those fortunate enough to attend Guillermo del Toro’s exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art can appreciate the director’s multi-disciplinary approach to filmmaking. His imagination (and his home base, Bleak House) is crammed full of arcane literature, macabre art and ancient artifacts that form the foundations of his films. Though his haunting understanding of the world has always merged with his stories, Pan’s Labyrinth seems hewn from the very fabric of his heart. When interviewed about the director while working on del Toro’s Crimson Peak, Tom Hiddleston opined, “Guillermo has an imagination perhaps more precise and rigorous than any director I’ve worked with…[he] finds beauty in the shadows.”
Though that inspiration undoubtedly suffused Crimson Peak, it drenched Pan’s Labyrinth to its core. The movie is like a Goya painting come to life, and indeed, his walking nightmare, the “Pale Man,” is inspired directly from the Spanish artist’s violent work, “Saturn Devouring His Son.” Rather than simply imitate these artistic flourishes, however, del Toro builds upon his predecessors with entirely fresh creations of his own. The unique landscapes and the characters that inhabit Pan are less of our world and more of del Toro’s mythological mind.
While there are echoes of Alice in Wonderland and scores of inverted fantasy tropes in the movie, Pan’s Labyrinth is also comprised of del Toro’s own life experiences. The scene when Captain Vidal caves in a man’s face with a bottle is not some ruthlessly-devised scene, but an actual memory from the director’s life. Furthermore, the movie’s anti-fascistic bent isn’t incidental, but del Toro’s personal rebuke against such political movements and even the religious undertones they often invoke. He mused that Pan’s Labyrinth is “a truly profane film, a layman’s riff on Catholic dogma.” Of course, the movie is also a companion piece and spiritual sequel to another of del Toro’s masterpieces, The Devil’s Backbone.
Del Toro’s crowning achievement is his ability to evoke these sentiments without ever becoming heavy-handed or didactic. Vidal and the pro-Franco fascists are the clear villains, but the faun, the fairies and the whole fantasy landscape appear neither wholly good nor entirely evil. As del Toro revealed, “It’s very important that they’re never fully good or bad. The faun in classical mythology is neither – it represents nature.” By rooting the film in nature and the fallout of the Spanish Civil War, del Toro allows his own opinions and reflections to quietly merge into the narrative. It’s the high-wire act of blending the fantasy and war genres that creates a tapestry of chaos unique to Pan’s Labyrinth.
Whether in the throes of global conflict or on the run from a child-eating ghoul, poor Ofelia lives in a world of perpetual danger. It’s a tantalizing question that del Toro raises: which is worse, the realism above, or the fantasy below? It’s no accident that the dinner sequence with Vidal shows him seated at the head of the table. Where does Ofelia find the Pale Man in pursuit of her second task? He is also at the head of a table lined with delectable dishes.
For many viewers, Pan’s Labyrinth represents a massive departure from usual fairytale fare. Thanks to Walt Disney’s monopoly of classic tales, audiences have grown accustomed to serendipitous adventures and the promise of a “happily ever after.” Disney specialized in neutering the deeper and darker truths in stories derived from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and others, swapping out their tragic endings for far more benign conclusions. Indeed, Pan’s Labyrinth itself is a misnomer, and the Pan of Greek lore is nowhere to be found in the movie. This title was assigned to the English-subtitled release perhaps to comfort viewers with the familiarity of a known quantity like Pan (though even in classical literature, he represents a figure of chaos and sexual conquest). The Spanish translation for the movie is far more accurate: El laberinto del Fauno, or The Faun’s Labyrinth.
Whichever version you choose, no one is safe in the labyrinth or the world of men. When the movie opens, it prepares us for a tale of death and loss, even for an adolescent. Ofelia is shown dying at the outset, thus destroying the fairytale trope that a “happy ending” is the only thing that matters. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the journey transcends the conclusion, and the faun compels Ofelia to complete three tasks before regaining her throne in the underworld. Though each trial tests her endurance and will, her ability to pass the final one relies on her strength of character. Far from a passive princess who waits for a man’s kiss to wake her up, Ofelia has agency, integrity and the willingness to be sacrificed. It’s her choice to spare her baby brother’s life that grants her passage into her parent’s kingdom. While Vidal and his fascistic army embody the patriarchy, Ofelia escapes it via her own immutable virtue.
Guillermo del Toro’s movies have seldom relied on words alone. Instead, they thrive on a visual vocabulary reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan and Orson Welles. By that metric alone, Pan’s Labyrinth must be placed at the top of del Toro’s filmography. Its imagery is so strong that it transcends the confines of language. Del Toro himself authored the English subtitles, but its his eye for symbolism and exquisite photography that turns Pan into pure visual poetry.
On the narrative front, Pan boldly partners the war genre with a fantasy foundation. Though The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe may have used the blitzkrieg as a backdrop for Narnia, Pan bounces back and forth between both worlds with aplomb. It doesn’t enter a musty closet and abscond from the realities of war. No, Pan lives in the space between, an interstice more dangerous than the frontlines of battle.
Del Toro said it best: “That’s what I love about fairy tales; they tell the truth, not organized politics, religion or economics. Those things destroy the soul. That is the idea from Pan’s Labyrinth.” Though he has many films left to make, del Toro’s pièce de résistance is Pan’s Labyrinth, a film that only he could have envisioned and executed with such majesty.