We generally think of fairy tales as the domain of young people—sweet fables to send the kids off to sleep, or feed their imaginations during their waking hours. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, however, has a more old school approach. His most recent film harkens back to the pre-politically correct days when Grimm’s fairy tales emphasized the “grim” part. In Pan’s Labyrinth he skilfully weaves a dark adult fairy tale set against the backdrop of the Second World War, creating a fairy tale that will likely keep the kids up at night, terrified rather than soothed.
Del Toro uses parallel worlds to tell the tale. In the mortal world it is 1944 Spain just after Franco’s fascists have taken over the country. In this cold, cruel and violent place a young girl, the soon-to-be-stepdaughter of a sadistic fascist general, escapes into a fantastic world populated by a pasty white creature known as The Pale Man and a half-man, half-goat Pan. The horned creature tells her she is a lost princess, and the only way to return to her underground kingdom is by completing three difficult tasks. Her harsh fantasy becomes a harsh reality when she is forced to endure the dire truths of her dual worlds.
The word masterpiece is thrown around rather casually these days, but in this case I think it applies. Pan’s Labyrinth is a beautifully realized film that vividly paints both worlds using broad strokes of beauty and dread. Del Toro’s vision of fascist Spain is uncompromising. Violence lurks around every corner and death can come in cruel and unexpected ways. When young Ofelia disappears down the rabbit hole she doesn’t find a world of comfort, but a place fraught with danger, almost as perilous as the “real” world she is running from. Del Toro effortlessly intertwines these realities, creating one whole that is emotionally complex and as satisfying as the age-old fairy tales that inspired it.
The fantastic new two disc DVD release includes a prologue and commentary track from del Toro, featurettes about the making of the film, storyboards, and interviews with the cast and crew.