Pan’s Labyrinth: ‘A Fairy-Tale of Delusions’ for Children and Adults Alike

Guillarme del Toro’s 2004 film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) has been described by many critics in one way or another as a ‘fairy-tale for adults’ because of its combination of fantastical creatures with gore and violence. But there is more to unpack from such a sweeping statement, and it is precisely why this film garners not just the reviews of a sofa-critic, but criticism in the academic study of films too.

The film follows Ofelia, a young girl who is forced to move in alongside her pregnant mother with her step-father, who happens to be a ruthless and cold captain in General Franco’s army. The scenes switch between the heartless world of the Captain in his pursuit to weed out the last guerrilla resistance, and Ofelia’s fantasy world filled with fauns, fairies, and adventures.

At first glance, the two worlds couldn’t seem more apart. Ofelia first appears as curious and wide-eyed clutching a stack of fairy-tale books as she explores a brightly sunlit forest. This is polarly opposed by the Captain’s world in his first appearance as he stands to attention in full grey uniform clutching a pocket watch. And this is where the magic of the film lies – mixing these two worlds. In one scene, Ofelia could be following a fairy, and the next is the Captain beating a man to death with a wine bottle in full detail and blood.

And almost instantly, the two worlds are tied together. The lighting will rarely change between scenes, even if one involves a soldier and the other involves a talking faun. Each world becomes equally dark, not only scenically but also in its content. There is no fantastical escape or relief, and instead the fantasy scenes become just as scary for an adult as a small child might find a tale about a monster.

scary pans labyrinth GIF
From Giphy

In many of the modern ‘Disneyfied’ fairy-tales, much of the original gore, horror, and trauma is wiped away and replaced with happy endings. Morals are plain and often have little depth beyond not trusting the Big Bad Wolf. Pan’s Labyrinth on the other hand brings back the grimness of the original Grimm fairy-tales, if you will pardon the pun.

The line between reality and fantasy is blurry in this film. Ofelia’s fantasy world has many impossibilities, like a car-sized toad, a faun that talks, and a piece of chalk that creates a door to the horrifying eye-hand man. And while many critics have pointed out that some fantasy objects carry over into the real world, like the key or the book or the mandrake that heals her mother, the fantasy scenes only ever involve Ofelia and no other ‘real’ person. In an epiphanic ending scene supposedly featuring Ofelia, the Captain, and the Faun, a slow camera pan reveals Ofelia merely talking to empty space, implying the whole fantasy world was a figment of her imagination. It is a world the adults seemingly cannot see.

But the line between child and adult is also relatively blurred. For one, Ofelia seems young yet mature well beyond her years. She addresses fantasy creatures with confidence and is actively responsible in nursing her mother to health again. In more uncomfortable scenes, the camera focuses on Ofelia with an alarming sexual undertone. For example, the camera zooms in on her bathing and barely covered by bubbles, or zooms in on her stripping down and clambering through a muddy tunnel to find the massive toad. Other scenes have odd menstrual references, like the faun’s insistence on completing the tasks before the moon is full, Ofelia’s book magically soiling itself in blood to form a uterus shape, or Ofelia ending the film cradling a new-born child.

This uncomfortable focus is potentially an extension of del Toro’s tendency to not hide anything from the viewer to build unease. This often involves the camera not cutting away as a man is beaten to death or tortured, or the focus falling on the gruesome detail of a fantasy monster, with the result making the viewer feel like they are watching something they shouldn’t be. It certainly places Ofelia uncomfortably between child and adult just as her world too is balanced between childish innocence and adult responsibilities. But more than anything – it feels utterly wrong and means the average viewer raises questions about the director’s artistic intentions.

The reason I mention this balance between child and adult is that it extends to the Captain too. His belief that his father died a hero and left a broken watch to mark the exact time of his death seems a far-fetched tale, but is doggedly believed until his own death. It also extends to del Toro’s political criticism too. In one scene where rations are handed out to locals, an officer can be heard repeatedly shouting out the same propaganda on Spain’s improvements under General Franco. There seems to be a hypocrisy drawn out between the adults who deny Ofelia’s fairy-tales but dogmatically follow the militaristic indoctrination.

El Laberinto Del Fauno Panın Labirenti GIF by TRT
From Giphy

The film ends with both fantasies shattered. Ofelia realises the faun’s ultimate desire to sacrifice a new-born child before being found and shot by the Captain for stealing the child. Equally, the Captain is gripped by his desire to repeat the tale of his father with the same very pocket watch but is shot dead by a rebel and told his son will never even know his name. Unlike many fairy tales, there is no happy ending. Although the film does end with Ofelia being welcomed into a dream like palace to re-join her parents on the throne, believing this fantasy ignores the wider idea the film presents.

What Pan’s Labyrinth highlights best is that fantasy never leaves us, even after we grow up. Everyone has the capacity to be childlike in their delusional beliefs, and suddenly a responsible adult at the same time. This dichotomy extends to most characters in the film, and as the film repeatedly highlights, the child and adult world do not mix well.

Pan’s Labyrinth sits firmly in the genre of liminal, uneasy horror. This is no cheap jump-scare film. It will make your skin crawl and leave you feeling uncomfortable after it finishes. It makes you feel clever and adult-like in appreciating the political criticism of Spain under General Franco, but also completely reduces you to a child scared by a folk-tale. Many of the horrors of fantasy are gruesomely brought to life with all their blemishes to see, and many of this film’s scenes are likely to stick in your head long after you watch it, just as a fairy-tale might too.

Like many of the best films, it plays with your thoughts and emotions, and leaves you thinking. It is utterly worth watching, but beware, this film is not for the squeamish.

-Henry Hood

Featured Image Source: Pan’s Labyrinth Trailer / Youtube / Studiocanal UK

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