Pan’s Labyrinth


Once upon a time there was a film called El Laberinto del Fauno.1 It was presented to the public as a fairy tale for adults; but not all the adults quite understood that, because they had grown old and prickly, and had begun to think that Walt Disney invented the fairy tale in the late fifties.

Those of us who’ve remembered that fairy tales are often tragic, horrific, disturbing and terrifying, however, should enjoy it.

In fact, Pan’s Labyrinth is tremendous. It follows young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), taken by her mother to meet her new father, a captain in the Fascist Spanish army. Both she and her new father have problems — he’s fighting off rebel militia, and she’s met a Faun who wants her to undergo a series of tests to see if she’s the princess. Things don’t go smoothly for either of them.

While often bloody, violent and brutal, Pan’s Labyrinth is a real visual feast. In the voluminous genre of films set during the second world war about little girls who visit magical worlds and meet Fauns, this film is so far above the recent The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that there’s almost no comparison.2 Where that film’s Narnia ended up resembling a colour-by-numbers fantasy setting, the brief sketches of a mysterious world in Pan’s Labyrinth are evocative, hypnotic and quite scary. In terms of worldbuilding-per-second,3 del Toro has beaten even the Jackson-Tolkein partnership. I’d talk about the monsters here, but the less you know of them, the better. Suffice it to say that they’re rich in fairy tale heritage, and beautifully horrid.

The ‘real world’ narrative is no less involving. Captain Vidal initially appears to be your standard bunny-killing, disembodied head-collecting, birdie-crunching evil movie villain. Luckily for the whole movie, while he remains irredeemably cruel, the story fills in enough of his history and thoughts to make him a surprisingly fascinating character. Sergi López is a formidable presence, yet Maribel Verdú’s Mercedes is more than a match for him — vulnerable and heroic, caring and ruthless. There’s not much competition out there in the middle-aged female hero stakes, but even if there was, Mercedes would still be the coolest.

If it hasn’t become clear yet, there’s no weak point to this film. Baquero is a fantastic child actor, the real world and and the fantasy world interact in ways that compliment each other rather than undermining the drama, and the story is relentlessly involving from start to finish. I’d call Pan’s Labyrinth a fantasy masterpiece, but for two things. Firstly; it’s so far ahead of the lacklustre ‘fantasy’ films that you normally see that it seems wrong to taint it with that label. Secondly; there’s no need to specify a genre — it’s just your regular, garden variety masterpiece.

  1. Or Pan’s Labyrinth. Pan himself as we all know is a Greek god with the horns and hindquarters of a goat. He’s currently engaged in one of those interminable Hollywood lawsuits, taking del Toro to task for using his name in the English translation when he’s clearly not the Faun in question. I believe the defence will be claiming that Pan’s Labyrinth just sounds cooler than The Labyrinth of the Faun.
  2. But watch me make one anyway.
  3. Tricky to measure, and I’m not sure of the units.
Captain, to obey for obeying's sake... That's something only people like you can do. — Dr Ferreiro

4 Responses to “Pan’s Labyrinth”

  1. How do you know the faun isn’t Pan, anyway?

  2. Anyway, the film was excellent. Although you didn’t quite stress how gory it was enough. I almost had to look away in places. Truly horrific stuff.

  3. Well, I suppose he might be called Pan, but he wasn’t watching over any cattle, and we didn’t see any other Greek gods wandering around. Del Toro refers to it as just an inaccurate translation.

    I suppose I could have stressed the violence more, but one doesn’t like to put people off… The first bottle-bashing incident was probably the worst — a lot of the later stuff was implied rather than shown.

  4. Thanks for the link to the interviews. Baquero is very articulate for a little girl. Unless she’s old and just does’t look it.