Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark story set in Spain during 1944. After her mother marries a savage army officer, a young girl begins to escape into a fantasy world to try to find a way to save herself and her younger sibling.
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of those dark stories the sits in the weird genre of magic realism. It isn’t a fantasy and it isn’t a real world drama, though you could interpret the movie to simply be a drama about a troubled young girl who uses delusions to escape from the nightmare of her own reality. That interpretation works well enough for the most part but would certainly kind of kill the magic at the core of this movie.
Ofelia is the young girl at the heart of the story, and she really is the beating heart of this film. Her world is a dark and scary place so when confronted by a fantasy world filled with horrific figures, her determination to face at least one monster even if she can’t face the monster in her normal life is easily understood. However, the story does not forget that Ofelia is also a child. She makes mistakes, doesn’t follow through sometimes, and at others she willfully ignores cautions leading to somewhat tragic results (both in the fantasy world she is experiencing and in her real world). These results scar Ofelia but also allow her to grow and by the end of the film, Ofelia is a transformed character. By that I don’t mean she suddenly smites the evil step-father and saves the day, but rather she has made her choices and she has resolve. She isn’t simply waiting in fear and allowing her life to be directed by those around her (even if that leads to also fairly tragic results).
This isn’t a happy story. It isn’t about finding a happily ever after in reality. Ofelia’s reality is what it is and regardless of her resolve, there are some things she cannot control and cannot change, even if she also cannot accept them. I’d suggest not watching this movie if you are already feeling a little disheartened by your own reality because this movie really drives home how helpless we are at times.
The fantasy world on the other hand has fairly set rules and achievable goals. Ofelia is regularly given very clear instructions to overcome a hurdle or an obstacle while at others she is left to figure out the steps but still has a clear goal in sight. This clearly contrasts with the hopeless sense of loss and lack of direction found in her reality as well as contrasting with the chaotic whims of her step-father whose expectations are never fully understood until he declares that they have not been met.
It’s also a truly beautiful movie. Dark to be sure, but the imagery is striking and each scene serves the purpose of the narrative and strikes just the right emotional tone to compliment the overall themes. With a soundtrack that also drives home the overwhelming emotions the main character is going through, tonal cohesion is not a problem that this film faces.
Where the criticism begins though is with the promotional materials for the film. Much like Bridge to Terabithia, the promotional materials chose to focus on the fantasy sequences of the film and this is actually detrimental to the viewing experience. Firstly, the fantasy sections don’t make sense without the context of Ofelia’s real world experiences and the connections the viewers can make between her encounters there and the obstacles she’s seeking to overcome in reality. However the greater issue is that these sequences have amazing dramatic impact when viewed for the first time given their striking imagery but that impact is lessened when the audience is already waiting for the weird creature with the eyes in its hands or other imagery to appear. Lastly, it just misrepresents what the focus of the film is. Certainly there is fantasy in this film but it is a story firmly grounded in a very gritty reality. People looking for a fantasy movie (even a dark fantasy), will be sorely disappointed if they went to this movie expecting a fantastical adventure akin to Alice in Wonderland with a darker tone and some trailers made this movie look like it would be just that.
Outside of the expectations this film may have built up in an audience before delivering a different experience, the other criticism of the film would be the pacing. Some scenes linger just that little too long; revelations sometimes tumble on top of one another while others seemingly take forever to appear. It’s jarring at times and feels like it dragging at others. While this kind of serves to put you in Ofelia’s fairly overwhelmed shoes, it makes for a viewing experience that is not exactly entertaining. Watching this film, at moments, feels like a chore. For all the wonderful narrative, characterisation, imagery, and beauty, it isn’t fun to watch. While for some people that isn’t going to be an issue, I kind of feel movies should be entertainment, and movies like this, while I appreciate them and fully understand why some people would love this sort of film, I also know that for me while I have watched this film more than once, I won’t put this film of when I just want to watch a movie. I’ll put this film on when I’m wanting something to puzzle over and to search for an answer. It’s the kind of film that leaves me thinking afterwards about all the what ifs and generally leaves me a little wrecked. So, not exactly entertaining but still not a bad experience.
I would recommend this as a watch but I would also recommend knowing what you are in for. There’s a lot of darkness in this film and it is the kind of darkness most of us can relate to which makes it hit very close to home sometimes. For all the magic and fantasy, this movie is grounded firmly in reality and that makes for a disturbing viewing experience.
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