No one saw Guillermo Del Toro’s beautifully sad, magical fable Pan’s Labyrinth coming. The movie was born out of an imagination that remembers what childhood is really like for most of us. It follows in the tradition of My Life as a Dog and Spirited Away, films about lonely, imaginative children who have the ability to transfer themselves out of the realm of reality and into a rich fantasy life.
What will likely be among the five foreign language entries at this year’s Oscars, the likely frontrunner to win, Pan’s Labyrinth is a flat-out masterpiece. Written and directed by Del Toro, it is a wartime epic but also the heartbreaking story of the young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) who moves between worlds. The world of fauns and fairies in the labyrinth and the world of post-fascist Spain in 1944, when Ofelia and her very ill and pregnant mother come to live with Captain Vidal (the brilliantly evil Sergi Lopez). Immediately, Ofelia notices a flying insect and dubs it a fairy. Eventually it will lead her out to the other world, the labyrinth.
Ofelia’s childhood is not a happy one. Her stepfather is cruel and indifferent. She fears her mother may be dying and her only friend is one of the housekeepers (the luminous Maribel Verdu from Y Tu Mama Tambien) who, by day, runs Vidal’s home and by night, helps the rebels who are a constant threat to Vidal’s power. Ofelia doesn’t have an easy time of it; is it any wonder that she wants to slip off to the labyrinth at every opportunity?
Ofelia is a formidable heroin – bold and intelligent, with unending curiosity, not unlike Alice in Wonderland. There are parallels to that story, as well as commonly known myths and fables. Unlike more modern magical tales, there is a sense of urgency for Ofelia. Her real world is crumbling. The labyrinth offers her an escape. And we want nothing more than to see her get there. She doesn’t belong in Vidal’s corrupt and loveless world.
That will be the ultimate question. Is Pan’s Labyrinth real or all in Ofelia’s vivid imagination? In the end, does it really matter? The point here is that we need our beautiful imaginary worlds. We need our creative outlets. They can transport us out of the misery of reality. They are the only things that can transport us, in fact.
Pan’s Labyrinth is very much in the old tradition of fairytales, before they were about making kids feel happy all the time. Even though it is aimed at adults and rated R, what is most difficult about the film isn’t the gore but the emotional weight, ultimately, in how the story plays out. Like all great fairytales, it captivates you from beginning to end, and doesn’t flinch when the story must go in a certain direction. How refreshing to dwell in the land of emotional nakedness, for a change.
Films hardly seem all that powerful anymore. Watching Pan’s is a reminder that there are still artists who are not entangled in the bottom line, the PG-13 rating and the target demographic. Del Toro has written and directed a film for the ages, a loving tribute to storytelling itself, and a tribute to the power of the imagination, which is ultimately our one reliable way out. So if you can’t find a door, draw one.