Del Toro has a marvelous way of bringing to life both the childlike and the frightful, and that story needs both. Moreover, he is a master of hand-crafted cinema. Since Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series set a new standard for digital animation, now Del Toro would have a chance to set a new standard for elaborate puppetry and handmade special effects. (He made it clear that he intended to use a lot of “creature shop” imagination for the film.
But then he and producer Peter Jackson ended up parting ways due to production delays (and, some say, over creative differences). Del Toro described it as his career’s most heartbreaking experience. And the world will probably never see much of what Del Toro had in mind.
And alas, the big-screen version of The Hobbit is not going well (unless you count box office success as a sign of quality). Many are complaining about the “video game” style of the first installment, and describing the adaptation (or rather, the embellishment) as “bloated” and excessive and contradictory to the spirit of the original.
So, as Del Toro is returning to the big screen soon with Pacific Rim, perhaps it’s time to revisit one of Del Toro’s great fantasy films to appreciate his strengths. His feature film The Devil’s Backbone is a masterfully crafted ghost story, full of imagination, compassion, and terror. This is also true of Pan’s Labyrinth, which has become one of my all-time favorite fantasy films.
This review of Pan’s Labyrinth was originally published at Christianity Today in December 2006.
“You’re too old to be filling your head with such nonsense.”
So says Carmen (Ariadna Gil), whose 12-year old daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is reading a fairy tale storybook in the car, early in Guillermo Del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth.
Are fairy tales just a waste of time? Should children be allowed to read such stuff? And what about adults? Should we bother with movies about magic and enchantment—like Pan’s Labyrinth? Or is it all just childish madness and reckless escapism?
Clearly, Del Toro believes that fairy tales have something to say to grownups. Otherwise, he would not have crafted an R-rated story about make-believe monsters. Don’t take your kids to this bloody, nightmarish tale. It’s disturbing and often terrifying.
But it’s also heartfelt and deeply meaningful. By contrasting the conflict of good and evil in the realworld with the dramas that take place in fantasy land, Del Toro reminds us that children’s stories—especially those dark and twisted fables from the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen—can give us rewarding perspectives on troubling realities. Sometimes, grownups need fairy tales as badly as children do.
It’s easy to see what’s sending Ofelia off to wonderland. Her pregnant mother is moving them into the Spanish countryside so they can live under the protection of the unborn baby’s father, Vidal (Sergi López), a monstrous captain in Spain’s civil guard. But Vidal doesn’t have much care for his family, outside of his desire for a son. He’s more intent on crushing a force of rebels who are resisting the government’s oppression. While the Spanish Civil War fades and World War II intensifies, Ofelia’s world seems to be spiraling out of control.
As J.R.R. Tolkien once told C.S. Lewis, those who are most hostile to the idea of escape tend to be jailers. Ofelia wants to be—no, needs to be—elsewhere, and her parents are in no mood to help her.
Like Chihiro at the beginning of Spirited Away, Ofelia discovers a gateway to wonderland just beyond a stone guardian who stands in the trees near the village where Vidal is stationed. Then, a curious creature with wings guides her into the most intriguing labyrinth we’ve seen on the big screen since, well, Labyrinth, twenty years ago.
And when Ofelia meets the host of this mysterious maze, he’s even more otherworldly than David Bowie, who ruled the netherworld of Jim Henson’s 1986 film. He’s a faun with massive horns and a menacing stride. Thanks to the title, some moviegoers will worry that he is a representation of the “Horned God” born of Greek mythology who goes by the name of Pan. But no, this isn’t a figure meant to represent male sexuality. The English-language title of the film was chosen for marketing purposes — it “sounded better” than the proper translation of the Spanish title, The Labyrinth of the Faun.
The faun (played with a spooky beastliness by Hellboy’s Doug Jones) is not a gentle Yoda, but he’s not the Devil either. Instead, this unpredictable creature manifests the untrustworthy aspects of the natural world. “I am the mountain, the woods, the earth,” he explains. “I’m a faun.” Don’t worry, this isn’t a pantheistic story. The faun doesn’t demand worship, although he clearly enjoys his power. He prefers to bless, punish, and issue unreasonable demands.
And so he informs Ofelia that she is, in fact, an ancient princess who has forgotten her true home—news that would undoubtedly delight an imaginative girl. In order to find that home, Ofelia must complete three tasks (of course). She must confront a giant toad. She must steal a dagger from the chambers of the Pale Man (a ghastly devil played, again, by Doug Jones). And then, she must employ the dagger per the faun’s instructions to break the enemy’s power.
Back in “the real world,” Vidal is beginning to realize that he may have a traitor in his camp. And so he begins a campaign of interrogation and torture to root out those who sympathize with the rebels. All suspects are presumed guilty until proven innocent — and either way, he’s likely to kill them.
A slave to his superiors, Vidal is an automaton of evil, a man who has silenced his conscience. He represents the opposite of Ofelia, whose decisions reflect a healthy conscience. His choices are not choices at all, but merely blind obedience. “To obey without questions,” says a defiant rebel to Vidal, “that’s something only people like you can do.”
What is Ofelia’s secret? It is her capacity for believing in the “nonsense” of storytelling. Again and again, the films of 2006 — Stranger than Fiction, Flags of Our Fathers, The Fountain, The Science of Sleep — have illustrated this. Story can help us endure chaos and suffering. Narrative gives us a framework for our lives in which we are able to apprehend meaning. Even Todd Field’s Little Children suggests we’ll understand our world better if we consider it through the lens of “grim” fairy tales.
The story comes to vivid life in shadowy worlds — both realistic and fantastic — that merge seamlessly through Eugenio Cabellero’s production design, captured by Guillermo Navarro’s expert cinematography. Enhanced by a lush, resonant score that recalls Howard Shore’s themes for The Lord of the Rings, Del Toro’s wonderland is populated by some of the most lifelike fantasy creatures ever created. There is a wondrous quality to the faun and his netherworld neighbors, who resemble figures from Arthur Rackham’s storybook illustrations.
The cast members refuse to let their make-believe co-stars steal the spotlight. Ivana Baquero is unnervingly convincing as a child caught in a traumatic situation. Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mama Tambien) is affecting as Mercedes, the housekeeper who watches over Ofelia. Sergi Lopez, who has portrayed unforgettable villains in With a Friend Like Harry and Dirty Pretty Things, is rather one-dimensionally wicked here; but as he represents the hard-heartedness of a brutal regime, he’s not meant to be a complicated character.
Del Toro directs this tale with the confidence of a master storyteller. Pan’s Labyrinth further develops a unique blend of fantasy and history that he introduced in his extraordinary 2001 film, The Devil’s Backbone. It succeeds because of Del Toro’s uncompromising dedication to his vision. When financiers lost their courage and bailed, Del Toro gave up his salary in order to finish it. As a result, he’s given us one of the best fantasy films ever made.
But Pan’s Labyrinth is more than just a fantasy. It’s an important film about the power of childlike faith to guide us through a darkening world.
Thus, it’s disappointing that Del Toro’s film writes off the church with one broad stroke, casting the Christian clergyman as hand-in-hand with the devil. It’s true that many evils have been committed in the name of Christ, and the Spanish Civil War raises questions about the relationship of the Catholic church and a fascist regime.
In an article in Sight and Sound, Del Toro said that the Pale Man, a devil who has a face without eyes, represents the evil committed by “faceless institutions” like the church. (He also describes himself as a “lapsed Catholic,” and tells us that he turned down an offer to direct The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because he “wasn’t interested in the lion resurrecting.”) But it seems rather extreme to equate Christians and Nazis. And it’s a shame that Del Toro can’t make a distinction between the message of Christ and the distortion of that message by corrupt and misguided churchmen.
Still, whether he knows it or not, Del Toro has given us a story resonant with echoes of Christianity. Consider the fairy tale about the rose of redemption, which was abandoned by those who feared the rose’s thorns. Consider the suggestion that those who become too focused on their own suffering will forget their true heritage and home. Consider the reminder that innocent blood has been shed for the salvation of the world.
This film would probably have delighted Tolkien and Lewis, who believed that fairy tales—even dark and troubling myths like this one—serve to help us explore spiritual mysteries and apprehend the reality of grace as it glimmers through a glass, or in this case a screen, darkly. Pan’s Labyrinthis a parable so profound it’s like the gospel masquerading in a mysterious disguise.
Other Critical Responses, from my Film Forum column at Christianity Today:
[from Film Forum, 01/04/07]
Critics are, for the most part, enraptured by Del Toro’s work, and several have rated it among the very best films of 2006.
But Greg Wright (Past the Popcorn) isn’t so impressed. “It’s fine to emphasize that fantasy can often be more real than reality; but for me, the deliberate unreality of del Toro’s Spain undermines the effort. We don’t long to escape to another world because reality is too fake; we long to escape because the place we live is unbearably real. And as for me, I couldn’t wait to escape from fully half of del Toro’s movie. At least the fantasy sequences provided satisfying relief.”
He concludes, “Sadly, del Toro’s flawed reality also undermines whatever political and social commentary he might have in mind. … Pan’s Labyrinth convinces me that del Toro is a master of fantasy, but leads me to question his grip on reality.”
[from Film Forum, 01/25/07]
Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) raves, “It’s a reminder that not all fairy tales are for children, and that the power of the imagination is something that can be kindled and reawakened in adults, given the right material. Pan’s Labyrinth is, in a word, breathtaking. … Its images are strange and, at times, frightening, but I found its message of strength through sacrifice deeply spiritual and profoundly Christian.”
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it “a cinematically stunning adult tale. … Though the main story outline is familiar in its classic structure, it is given new life by Del Toro’s deft balancing of the harsh real world with the girl’s mysterious parallel universe which sheds light on the former, and there are poignant elements of sacrifice and redemption.”
J. Robert Parks (Framing Device) is slightly disappointed, but only because it falls short of Del Toro’s previous masterpiece, The Devil’s Backbone. “The movie isn’t quite as strong as Devil’s Backbone … in part because the fantastic and historical modes never quite mesh. The fairy tale aspect doesn’t have the payoff that you’d expect (not like the ghost story of Devil’s Backbone). The finale … is somewhat anti-climactic, and, unlike many fairy tales, the story isn’t an allegory for the real world. Furthermore, we don’t spend enough time with the historical characters to understand their situation.”
But Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) writes that the movie is excessively, gratuitously violent, and definitely not for children. He adds, “Even most adults won’t want to (and shouldn’t) indulge its grim excesses.”