The best fairytales are the dark ones...
From the Brothers Grimm to Roald Dahl, the greatest children's storytellers have always understood that childhood is full of all kinds of unseen dangers and grave injustices. With the exception of the Victorian age, where all children's stories seemed to involve walled gardens and kindly cripples, history is rich with stories of children being lured into all kinds of hideous situations by all manner of scumbags, either with or without magic powers. After all, to be a child is to be permanently at the mercy of others, and whilst the majority of adults are well-meaning, there will always be those who seek to exploit those in their most vulnerable states.
The very mention of Guillermo Del Toro's 2006 masterpiece Pan's Labyrinth can still make me choke up. When I first saw it in the cinema, I had to remain behind for ten minutes just to regain my composure, something I have never had with any other film- and I cry at the movies a lot. When I decided to write about it for this newsletter- and therefore watch it again- I did have to check with myself that I wouldn't need therapy afterwards, but I took one for the team anyway.
At a glance
The story focuses on a young girl, Ofelia, who is sent- along with her pregnant mother- to live with her mother's new husband, a sadistic general trying to put down a guerrilla rebellion in the early years of the Franco regime. With her mother gravely ill and no-one of her own age to play with, Ofelia explores the ancient maze on the property, where she meets a faun (as you do) named Pan who tells her that she is actually a princess whose father has been waiting for her "in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain". Pan sets her three magical tasks that must be performed by the next full moon in order to prove herself worthy of her royal title. But this faun is no Mr Tumnus; giant of stature and terrifying in appearance, he is by turns charming and menacing and you're never entirely sure what to make of him.
If she doesn't complete her tasks, Ofelia will have to stay in the mortal world, which, as becomes apparent pretty quickly, is a pretty shit one. When her new stepfather, Captain Vidal, isn't polishing his boots or obsessively grooming himself, he's casually smashing in peasants' heads with glass bottles on a whim and belittling Ofelia's mother in public. For her part, Ofelia's mother Carmen is gravely ill and largely bedridden, until she dies giving birth to Ofelia's half-brother; in other words, what a shrink would term an 'unavailable mother'. Ofelia's only friend in the adult world comes in the form of the housekeeper, Mercedes, who, as it turns out, is risking her own life to give assistance to the guerrillas hiding in the hills.
Having been successful in her first two tasks, Ofelia struggles with the third one because it involves spilling the blood of an innocent, in this case her new baby brother, the son that Captain Vidal has so longed for. She tells an angry Pan that she won't do it. With the full moon overhead, it turns out that Ofelia's not the only one having a bad night; the guerrillas have gained on Captain Vidal's outpost, finally closing in on the captain just after he has found Ofelia hiding in the maze with his son.
But they get to him too late. By the time they reach the captain, he has already retrieved his son and shot Ofelia, who dies in Mercedes' arms. The captain's comeuppance must surely be one of the most satisfying in movie history. Knowing that escape is impossible, he hands the baby over to Mercedes and and asks only that she will one day tell him how his father died.
"No," Mercedes replies. "He won't even know your name."
But as is always the case in this haunting film, the gruesome goings-on in the adult world are only half the story. What we see, that Mercedes and the others do not, is that that having been shot, the dying Ofelia spills her own blood, and this means that she has completed her final task. She finds herself reunited with her mother and her father the king in a beautiful kingdom where Pan also waits for her. He tells her that he was only testing her when he tried to get her to spill her brother's blood, and she can now accept her new title of Princess Moana. And, we assume, live happily ever after.
The Childhood of Pan's Labyrinth
The injustice of childhood is a theme in much of Del Toro's work and this film is no exception. Ofelia is alone and vulnerable, with no one to protect her. She seeks solace in her story books and then in her own fantasy world. Above all, she is a pure soul, and her death at the end of the film is symbolic of the purity of childhood being destroyed by the adult world.
Power is also a central theme in this film. In the real world, power is authoritarian and brutal and Ofelia, as a child, is particularly subject to this. But Ofelia's own power comes from her imagination, something that the adults have lost in their eternally fear-based lives. There are several scenes in the film where Ofelia is told either by her mother or Mercedes that her dreaming will come to nothing. It's Ofelia's ability to see magic and beauty in dire circumstances, however, that saves her. In the beginning of the film, she is alerted to the presence of the maze when she follows a 'fairy'- in reality the sort of giant flying creepy-crawly that would have most of us reaching for the nearest can of Raid. And the creatures and monsters that Ofelia meets on her travels are far from cute; from the sinister tree-beast Pan to the grotesque child-eater that stands in the way of her second task, they are mostly the stuff of adult nightmares.
Whereas many adult stories about childhood take the view that imagination is ultimately useless, this film celebrates it. The power of a child's imagination is a redemptive thing; we all know-or indeed are- adults who say that books and films got them through their childhood and taught them about the world around them. It's very telling that when Captain Vidal is killed, his only concern at the time of death is for a baby who is a few hours old. For all his power, might and status, he ultimately holds reverence only for the most vulnerable type of human of all.
And, let's face it, we still need the power of imagination just as much as we ever did. 'Imagination' in the grownup realm just gets called 'denial', and who the hell doesn't need a bit of it at times?
You can watch the trailer below, but viewing of the full movie is thoroughly recommended. Just remember to stay hydrated.