Pan's Labyrinth keeps it real
(as far as fairy tales can keep it real)
This may come as a shock to some of you, but today’s fairy tales are for wusses. Not only is there a disturbing lack of violence in most modern tellings of fairy tales but very often there is also a distinct lack of torture, death, bestiality, and character development. Fairy tales are also the putative vessels of morals and life lessons but they’re in sore need of some updating. For example, if I followed the lessons taught in Jack and the Beanstalk and traded my “heifer” for another man’s “beans” I’d probably end up with a sore butt and a weepy appearance on Cops. Thankfully, we have Pan’s Labyrinth to rectify this sorry situation.

Pan’s Labyrinth has been billed as a fairy tale for adults and as we’ll see, this is a key distinction for its success as a modern fairy tale. Of course, “adult fairy tale” conjures images of bound and gagged fairies and little hairy fauns with an appetite for tickling (at least for me), but the “adult” tag instead describes a darker, more subtle style of storytelling that eschews happy talking animals in favor of freaking huge goat men with cryptic motives and Nazis. This turns out to be a very good move for audiences with the exception of small children who will probably become confused and perhaps more than a little afraid of the woods, the dark, and authoritarian military regimes.

A hairy faun with a penchant for tickling or the director of Pan's Labyrinth?
You be the judge.

As most fairy tales go, the set up is simple: during the ominous period of World War II, a young girl (played by Ivana Baquero) and her pregnant mother move into the Spanish countryside to be with her militant stepfather (Sergi Lopez). The young girl’s name is Ofelia and her new home is full of surprises as she is soon approached by creatures of the underworld (ie: the freaking huge goat man/faun) who promise her the eternal life of a princess if she is able to complete a series of tasks. Admittedly, this may sound a bit blah, but there’s much more going on beneath the idyllic surface because as it turns out, the stepfather isn’t just your run-of-the-mill-abusive-man-of-the-house (whew), but a Nazi general tasked with the destruction of the region’s anti-fascist rebels. And it isn’t long before little Ofelia’s quest for princess-hood throws her smack dab in the middle of this very real and very violent conflict. With princesses and fairies, freedom fighters and Nazis, we certainly have the makings of a modern fairy tale and fortunately Pan’s Labyrinth looks like one too.

Little Ofelia and her horny friend

Visually, this is a stunning movie. The settings range from the vibrant green forests to a flickering-candlelit dinner party of death (check, please?) and they all look faaaabulous. The lack of computer-generated effects is also a strength as the fauns and creepy baddies prowl and lurk with a realism that will keep you awake at night (or so I’m told - ahem). Even during gunfights and torture scenes (oh yes, there is torture) the lights and colors are appropriately bright and cheery or dark and threatening. Everything on the screen is just a little more beautiful and a little more haunting as befitting a fairy tale.

I may be creepy and wrinkly but I have the heart of a little boy. In my fridge.
I'm saving it for a potluck.

What sets Pan’s Labyrinth apart form other fairy tales (and other movies) is its ability to put shades of gray into every character. Ofelia may appear as your average young princess-in-training, but only over time does it become clear whether her dreams are purely selfish fantasy or perhaps something more altruistic. There are several scenes in which Ofelia puts herself and those around her at great risk and the audience is constantly left to wonder what she is thinking. The combination of excellent dialogue, cinematography, and acting make every character, including the monstrous stepfather, more than just a cardboard cutout.

And the acting really is top notch. Ivana Baquero deftly walks the fine line of innocence without falling off the edge. Sergi Lopez also stands out as the loathsome stepfather/dictator. There isn’t a weak link in the cast and Pan’s use of Spanish lends the entire film a sense of exoticism that further serves the film’s fairy tale roots.

If I were a smarter man with a larger ego (mine is actually small, humble, and modestly gorgeous), I might argue that Pan’s Labyrinth could be seen as an allegory for that troubling passage between childhood and a full blown case of adult-itis. I’ll leave you, my beautiful readers, to draw your own conclusions, but it is thanks to Pan’s layered nuances in both plot and design that this interpretation is even possible. You may ultimately agree or disagree with my deductions here, but you will also thank me for seeing this film.

Pan’s Labyrinth is a haunting, beautiful film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. If you haven’t seen it yet, go now. Otherwise, go see it again. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’ve awarded Pan with a John rating (4 out of 4 stars).


ksklein said...

I think the movie is great - though very different from what I had expected. It is brutal but beautiful and the music is just wonderful.

Squish said...

Finally you're back with a review! Or was it a quiz? If it's a quiz, I guess... PAN'S LABYRINTH? Am I right?! am I the first!?

Paztidifusa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt said...

-Ksklein - I don't think this movie got a lot of attention in the US when it was first released some time ago. I know it won a couple of awards recently so hopefully more people will watch it and appreciate it.

-Squish - I'm back baby! And... in the spirit of giving, I award you partial credit!

-paztidifusa - I stand corrected. While my facts may be suspect (I hereby promise to fire my fact-checker), the spirit remains the same. While Pan's Labyrinth takes place in Spain under an oppressive regime, it is not a Nazi regime. Those poor Nazis get blamed for everything these days.

But in all seriousness, I appreciate the correction and I'm happy that you cared enough to comment. Have a great day!

Squish said...

Yeah, Matt, YOU HAVE NOT UNDERSTOOD ANYTHING! Know your Franco from your Adolpho!

SHEESH! Smokey should take you out and hose you down with his 'natural' fire extingusher.

Anonymous said...


Online Movies said...

The movie is great..very much different what i what expected from it..the whole movie is made in Spain.

www.empresas3d.com said...

This can't work as a matter of fact, that is exactly what I believe.