“You’re getting older, and you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you’ll learn that—even if it hurts.”
Pan’s Labyrinth is really in a class of its own. Directed by Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pacific Rim) and starring Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gill, and Sergi Lopez, this is a curious mix of fairy tale and brutal war film, and it’s more imaginative than just about any other movie on this list. The movie comes to us from Spain, and it’s set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). We see most of the film through the eyes of the young girl Ofelia, who isn’t completely aware of what’s going on with the war and instead finds herself thrust into a fairy tale world of fauns, fairies, and monsters, traveling back and forth between the worlds and seeing things unfold in both. There’s a deeper story, of course: Ofelia’s adventures in the fantasy world she discovers serve as an allegory for what’s going on with the war, and there are strong parallels between the two worlds in the film. This film is brilliant, beautiful, magical, and at times quite creepy, and there’s really nothing else like it.
The film opens with Ofelia and her pregnant mother Carmen traveling to a remote military outpost, as Carmen is recently married to the cruel military captain Vidal. She is quickly befriended by Mercedes, a maid there. She also quickly meets a faun who tells her of her magical royal heritage and gives her three tasks to complete to bring her back into the fantasy world and claim the throne. These tasks are not trivial, nor are they safe, as Ofelia finds herself in danger often. In the war, rebels are hiding in the mountains and striking the military base when they can, of course hinting at the inevitable showdown between the two opposing forces.
But Captain, to obey—just like that—for obedience shake… without questioning… That’s something only people like you do.
The fantasy world of Pan’s Labyrinth is imaginative, but seamlessly integrated into the real world Ofelia inhabits. It’s intentionally unclear whether this fantasy world really exists or is just a figment of her imagination, but the story works equally well either way. As I said, it’s an allegory for the common people of Spain and their struggle in their fight for freedom. There’s an appeal to Ofelia’s true heritage, a call to something greater, dangerous tasks to complete, and a few surprises near the end that force her to think about what she truly values—all symbolizing the rhetoric and vision that was cast to draw the Spanish rebels together to fight for their cause. Watch for parallels between what Ofelia is doing in the fantasy world and what’s going on with the war—the two storylines say a lot about each other.
Though this is a fairy tale, it is not for kids. There’s some brutal violence and the fantasy scenes can be very intense. This is a very mature story layered with danger and deeper themes for an adult audience. We’re almost immediately exposed to some brutality to show us what this film is capable of, and danger lurks around every twist in the plot. There’s one scene in particular (if you’ve seen it, you know the one) that I can’t watch without my mouth hanging open and my eyes glued to the screen. This is a thriller as much as it is a fantasy story, and you will not be bored as the story unfolds.
Pan’s Labyrinth has layers of symbolism and allegory that add deeper meaning to the plot, but honestly, it’s a good movie even without delving into that. It’s as thrilling as it is imaginative, and exceeds at both. Some scenes may be a bit too much if you’re squeamish or easily frightened, and the subtitles (all dialogue is in Spanish) may be hard for some to follow, but this is still an amazing film with much to offer to most adult audiences. If you’re looking for a dark fairy tale with deeper themes, look no further than this film.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Genres: fantasy, historical, thriller