THIS WEEK: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Set in 1944 Spain, this dark and twisted fairy tale follows a little girl in a world at war. She escapes into a mysterious and fantastic underworld filled with mythical creatures.
HOW IT STARTS: A young girl plays in a dense forest, when she discovers a strange looking creature buzzing around and enters her own fairy tale.
THE PREFACE: Guillermo del Toro is a master of visual filmmaking. He infuses his imagery with so much atmosphere and intricate design work. Del Toro films transport you to another world. This concept is paralleled in the fairy tale story of Pan’s Labyrinth. A little girl uses her imagination to escape the horrors of war and get transported to another world.
Del Toro carefully balances the interpretive elements. What really happens in this story is up to the individual viewer. Did the little girl really discover a mystical labyrinth? Or was it all in her imagination? This is part of the fun of watching this movie and putting together all of the pieces.
Del Toro is mostly known for his creature work and ability to create suspenseful horrors. Even though this Mexican director has made a lot of popcorn munching hits for Hollywood, his films made in his native tongue are much more cerebral. Pan’s Labyrinth is the perfect blend of Del Toro’s strange brew. We get the budget and photography of a Hollywood movie, but the internal qualities and interpretive themes of his Spanish language films.
THE SET-UP: A little girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), discovers she is a princess of a magical kingdom. She must prove herself by completing three tasks. The fairy tale goes that long ago the princess dreamed up a whole new world. She was so amazed by her creation, that she forgot where she came from. The princess is Ofelia, and her world is our reality at war in 1944.
Ofelia learns of this myth from a fantastical old faun she meets in the center of a labyrinth. The audience is asked which of these fairy tales is real. The one where a princess forgot her fairy kingdom, or the one where Spain is under attack? Since this a movie you might as well go on the adventure and believe in the magic.
The way the Del Toro establishes this fantasy world is incredible. He takes his time setting the stage with character development. The step-father of Ofelia is the ruthless Captain of a Spanish Army. He could very well symbolize the horrific monster of the three tasks in this terrifying version of Oz. At the very least, he is Ofelia’s villain of the real world.
THAT MOMENT: Ofelia investigates her new home and the surrounding woods. Her mother has sent her to live with her step-father, the Army Captain. Unhappy with the new change, Ofelia explores outside, hoping to escape all that is wrong in her world. While enjoying nature, the young girl notices a curious new insect fluttering about. Ofelia follows the strangely beautiful creature. Soon enough she realizes this amazing insect is like something right out of the fairy tales she adores so much. What looked like a dragonfly or praying mantis or something is actually a fairy – Del Toro style. It almost looks like a haunted version of the adorable winged ballerina you imagine. This is the horror movie version of Tinkerbell. No pixie dust in sight.
This Moment is so significant because it marks the beginning of our fantastic journey. In this Moment we cross over a threshold. We are entering fantasy. How far this fantasy extends is up to you. How you interpret this event will frame the entire movie in a different context. Ofelia has either gone crazy and just entered La La Land, or she has actually discovered a fantastic new realm. This Moment alone makes the movie worth watching twice.
I prefer the romantic interpretation that she is a Fairy Princess who has lost and forgotten her Kingdom. The faun (or pan) tells Ofelia that one world is free of pain, why the other is full of it. Perhaps this is an allegory for life and the Afterlife? Either way, there is comfort in the fantasy.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: Del Toro tells a sad story full of deep emotion, but he also populates this world with incredible visions. The embellished imagery and elaborate designs are the real highlight for this movie nerd. The look of each and every fantastic creature is outstanding. The world feels real because of the stellar attention to detail.
Regardless of how you interpret the story, the imagery is still totally mind-blowing. The faun himself is astonishing. The centaur-looking creature appears ancient. The way its hide blends with nature is really interesting, as are the askew angles that form its silhouette.
Another creature highlight is the eyeless monster at the head of that long table. In order to see, this tall thin monster brings his clawed hands to his face, where eyes lay embedded in his palms. This image is so startling it makes you gasp. It is the stuff of nightmares.
Leave it to a visionary director like Del Toro to make you care about characters, get invested in their emotions, yet still drop your jaw at creature effects and gnarly set design. Let us hope he continues this trend in some of his future projects, like the recently released Crimson Peak. The fanboy fav director seems to take turns making popcorn action flicks like Pacific Rim and intellectual horror fantasy like The Devil’s Backbone.
Keep your eyes peeled for this mad scientist director (palms out hehehe), you never know what Del Toro will come up with next. For now, Remember or discover his best film ever – the dark and beautiful, Pan’s Labyrinth.