Once upon a time, in a land thousands of kilometers across the Atlantic’s teal ripples, a relocated Mexican by the name of Guillermo del Toro dreamt up the fanciful story of a child in post-Civil War Spain which eventually grew into Pan’s Labyrinth. Before you speed off to take the nearest youngster to see this particular fairy tale, though, don’t plan on expecting to see any bespectacled teenage wizards or jolly green ogres with spunky talking donkeys in tow. Del Toro’s surrealist adventure will enrapture those mature audience members who fall down its rabbit hole, but it will take weeks to dry out little Suzie’s tear-drenched jumper…and possibly twice your tuition for her years of therapy. So telephone the sitter before you embark on this adventure.
After possibly war-related circumstances befall a fairy-tale-trusting tween named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), she is forced to move to the Nationalist stronghold camp where her reluctance to give up the escapist outlet of her imagination leads her into all sorts of trouble. Her pregnant, widowed mother is set to give birth to the child of her new husband, the emotionless Captain Vidal (Sergi López), and neither her mother nor her new stepfather are all too pleased with Ofelia’s mischief-making and absence from reality. All around the unhappy family, the locals are still putting up a ragtag resistance against the Francoists, even though the war is officially over.
Ofelia is vaguely aware of this, but she continues her daydream fantasies, partly to avoid the cruel Captain. One day, Ofelia discovers a faun in the ancient stone backyard labyrinth, who explains to her that she is truly Princess Moanna, daughter of the King of the Underworld, and in order to return to her glorious stature, she must perform certain fantastical tasks.
Guillermo del Toro transports himself to Spain to weave this yarn of 1940s post-Civil War Spanish fantasy, channeling two of the country’s most renowned artists, Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. Blend Un chien andalou and The Persistence of Memory, and throw in a pinch of whatever you’ve got lying around from your last visit with Tim Burton, and maybe then can you anticipate the trip to del Toro’s world. Elements of The Chronicles of Narnia surface (read: borderline frightening talking goat humanoid), as do elements of Harry Potter (read: magical feats of intelligence and courage, mandrakes, faceless monsters with an appetite for children, etc.)
On the other (eyeball-palmed) hand (of a baby-eating mummy), the imagination of del Toro has revived both surrealist film and fairy tales in one turn of the reel. He paints entirely new images into a genre hundreds of years old, and takes them from a juvenile Nickelodeon to an advanced CNN level. And del Toro rightly deserves that much of the credit, claiming triple-threat rights by writing, directing and producing this whole visual and intellectual cavalcade solo.
Pan’s Labyrinth grasps the emotions of the audience in both worlds — Ofelia’s innocence latching onto their wonder, and the utter brutality of the captain grabbing their empathy by the jugular and pistol-whipping it. The juxtaposition of the fantastical escapism of the little girl with the cruelty of the captain solidifies del Toro’s overarching themes of the destructive consequences of unchecked authority and the importance of a child’s pure innocence and imagination. This recipe, usually reserved for such works as The Diary of Anne Frank, fits swimmingly into other contexts — in this case the Spanish Civil War, but also perhaps something nearer to our own lives. But the other unique combination this film purveys — a period piece with a fantasy element — establishes another facet of this project’s innovation.
With several intelligent, unconventional films originating from the Spanish-speaking contingent of Pedro Almodóvar (Volver), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel) and Guillermo del Toro, among many others, to be sure, it appears that this set of filmmakers is establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with. These writer/directors demand attention for projects that don’t aim for a specific market, but instead for the provocation of thought. Perhaps one day they will be for today’s cinema what the Italians were for that of the 1960s.