There are few filmmakers who are as gifted with creating spectacular worlds and creatures like Guillermo del Toro — the Academy Award winning visionary behind great horror and fantasy stories like behind The Shape of Water or the Hellboy movies, to name a few. Upon the release of his new Netflix original anthology horror series, Cabinet of Curiosities, I thought I would revisit what most fans consider to be his true magnum opus, Pan’s Labyrinth.
The Oscar-winning Spanish-language period piece from 2006 stars Ivana Baquero as a young girl seeking to escape the harsh realities of World War II-era Spain by entering a fantasy world that a mysterious faun (Doug Jones) claims is truly hers to rule. Watching this masterpiece for the first time in years invoked a lot of interesting thoughts within me that I would like to share with you below.
I Don’t Trust Parents Who Discourage Reading
When we first meet Ivana Baquero’s Ofelia, her pregnant, ailing mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), tells her she is too old to waste her time reading fairy tales, which immediately gave her low points in my book, to be honest. I understand that she has been through a lot since the loss of her husband and with her country in distress, but that is all the more reason to allow her child — no matter what age — the fantastic escape she deserves. However, I would certainly rather have Carmen as a mother than Captain Vidal (Sergi López) as a father, but more on him later.
She Thinks That Huge Bug Is A Fairy?
While making a stop on their way to the Captain’s home, Ofelia encounters an unusually large, six-legged insect and, apparently charmed by its presence, then tells her mother it was a fairy. Now, I realize that fantasy creatures can come in all kinds of forms, but, to me, that thing looked more like a little demon that I would never want to go near, so I cannot say I was nodding my head with enchantment when she gave the bug such an endearing description.
No Supernatural Elements Are Necessary With The Captain Onscreen
I imagine that anyone who went into Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006 expecting another great horror movie from Guillermo del Toro certainly got what they wanted, but not at all in the way they expected. Even with its creepy fairy tale aesthetic, there is nothing more horrifying throughout this entire movie than Sergi López’s performance as Captain Vidal.
His inhumane nature is first made clear when he kills a pair of intruders claiming to be rabbit farmers, confirms their honesty by finding rabbit carcasses on them, and blames his subordinate for not searching them thoroughly enough before bothering him about the matter. I mean, couldn’t he have searched them himself before murdering them in cold blood? The answer is yes.
Oh, I Guess Ofelia Was Right About The Bug
Looks like a spoke too soon about the insect’s true identity. This was actually my second viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth and I had completely forgotten that it actually was a fairy in disguise, as it reveals to Ofelia not long after. In my defense, I am not a fan of bugs at all, which this movie — to my delight — has its fair share of.
The Faun’s Entrance Is So Brilliant
When Ofelia meets the faun (also known as Fauno, or the titular Pan) in the labyrinth, he reveals to her (and us) that he has been hiding in plain sight, blending seamlessly into his environment, for the scene’s entirety. Not only is this so effectively startling, but it is such a clever way to introduce the character, because it explains how he would be able go unseen by the Captain or his subordinates before Ofelia finds him… if he is really there, that is.
Interesting How One Of The Most Realistically Harrowing Scenes Comes Right Before The Most Frightening Fantasy Sequence
The most startling scene in the eyes of most fans is when Ofelia must confront a grotesque creature called The Pale Man, but I was a little more on edge at the scene that comes before it. Doctor Ferrerio (Alex Angulo) delivers injured revolutionary Frenchie (Gonzalo Uriarte) the bad news that he will have to amputate his leg, setting off what feels like a lengthy amount of heart-wrenching tension before he begins working the blade against his flesh. To put these sequences one after the other is diabolical, but, as a horror fan, I actually admire Del Toro’s use of a “who needs breathing room?” approach here.
Doug Jones Should Be In Every Horror Movie
A key element as to why the Pale Man sequence is so horrifying — even with the knowledge that it could just be Ofelia’s imagination — is the performance by Doug Jones, who is also equally brilliant as Fauno.
It is no wonder that Del Toro (and plenty of other filmmakers) often rely on him to play characters that require heavy prosthetics, such as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies or the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water (who do bear a few similarities, I will admit), as well as the undead Billy Butcherson, whom he recently reprised in Hocus Pocus 2. This is not a unique take, but I am always excited to see who or what he will bring to life next, and hope to see him play plenty more wondrous and grotesque characters for years to come.
Mercedes’ Retaliation Against The Captain Is Such Satisfying Poetic Justice
Perhaps the most invigorating moment is when the Captain’s housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), puts a nice little half-smile on her sadistic employer’s face with a hidden kitchen knife — a much-needed moment of justice in this parable of oppression that also has an intriguing deeper meaning.
An earlier scene sees the Captain staring at himself while shaving before taking his razor to scratch the mirror right where it reflects the part of his mouth that Mercedes would later slice open. I like to interpret this as an analogy for his ultimate comeuppance being the result of his own monstrous actions, which, in some ways, reflects Del Toro’s comments to told Entertainment Weekly that the mirror represents his crippling pride.
You Know, Fauno Is Kind Of A Jerk, Too
There is obviously no question that the Captain is true antagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, but there were times when I was not too fond of Fauno either. The peak of my concerns came near the end when she refuses to sacrifice her infant brother to open the gate that would allow her to return to the Underworld and he replies very cruelly, not seeming to understand why she would give up her royalty for a “brat” she only knew for a few days. On top of that, he does nothing to warn the little girl that her wicked stepfather is right behind her before he grabs the baby and shoots her dead.
So, How Much Of That Was Real?
Of course, I cannot ignore the possibility that Fauno never could have warned Ofelia about the Captain because he only existed in her head anyway. However, the film also gives several hints throughout that the fantasy elements are real by how crucially they affect the story — such as the mandrake root that mysteriously keeps Carmen healthy during her pregnancy. I think it was the right call to never fully let us in on what is real and what is purely fantasy because it makes the tragic ending somewhat bittersweet (Ofelia dies, but is reborn in the magical world she belongs) and it keeps us thinking about it long after the credits roll.
I actually had a minor argument once with a friend (who then considered Pan’s Labyrinth to be his favorite movie of all time) over the movie's supernatural elements. He believed it was pretty clear they were all in Ofelia’s head while I was more open to the contrary. I still stand by that belief to this day, not only because it keeps the conversation (and, therefore, the film’s legacy) alive, but also for the same reason I disagreed with Carmen’s dismissal of Ofelia’s fascination with fairy tales: we should never turn our backs on our own imaginations. I believe that may be the film’s most important message.
Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.
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