Pan’s Labyrinth: Two Perspectives

A dark film with a heavy dose of fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth is garnering notice from critics all across the board. RELEVANT’s Michael Kneff and Chris Fletcher give their takes on the Spanish-language film.

Purity in the Face of Atrocity: Michael Kneff

Pan’s Labyrinth is a visually stunning and beautifully layered film. In fact, it received six nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the film. The story stems from the creative mind of Guillermo del Toro and is literally an incarnation of his own dreams and nightmares. He himself has dubbed Pan’s Labyrinth a “painfully made creation.”

Pan’s Labyrinth is a modern fairy tale about Ofeila (Ivana Baquero), a little girl living in Spain in 1944. Ofelia travels to the countryside with her pregnant mother. There they meet Ofelia’s new stepfather, a captain in Fransisco Franco’s army. Ofelia finds herself caught between two worlds. In the first, she is forced to deal with the harsh reality of her life in which her stepfather is a cruel, unfeeling man, and her mother’s health is failing from a complicated pregnancy. In the second, she begins to have interactions with a seemingly imaginary world, in which she is the princess and is visited by a host of mythical creatures. Ofelia’s story is that of a girl who is journeying towards a destiny. During her journey she is accompanied by both friends and monsters, and not everything is exactly what it seems.

This film is not for all audiences. Guillermo del Toro has said that living in Mexico was the main influence for his unflinching and graphic treatment of death and violence. Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale set in the middle of a war zone, and as such includes violent images. In an interview with NPR, del Toro explained that he feels fairy tales are meant to deal with life’s questions and can effectively reveal inner struggles. “Ugly beautiful” adequately describes the film.

So what happens when you are faced with real monsters? And what happens when those real monsters look like normal people? Pan’s Labyrinth asks us to imagine that monsters not only exist, but that they can walk among us. The film also hangs heavily on the idea that choices are what define us. With war being such a polarizing issue, del Toro asks, “How far can we justify our actions by saying that we are just following orders?” I don’t think the film is meant to make a necessarily pro- or anti-war statement, but I do think that del Toro is trying to encourage his audience to keep asking questions.

The tagline for the film is “innocence has a power that evil can not imagine,” a statement which hints at some of the deeper currents in the movie. Ofelia personifies the idea that nothing is more powerful than an active choice to stand up to atrocity, yet stay uncorrupted and pure.

A Finely Wrought Fairy Tale: Chris Fletcher

Who said that fairy tales are supposed to be happy? A bit light on the labyrinth and heavy on sadness, Guillermo del Toro’s not-so-new film is tempered with glimpses of the fantastic. Kind of like real life, if only we allow ourselves to see it.

Ofelia is a little Spanish girl who dreams of fairies and their tales. Her mother is pregnant and ill, and her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) of Franco’s fascist army, has sent for all three of them so that his son can be born “where his father is.” Too bad that’s in the middle of a struggle between guerrilla fighters and Ofelia’s sadistic stepfather.

During her first night at the house, Ofelia meets a faun who tells her that she is a princess escaped from the underworld and that the successful completion of three specific tasks will restore her to her rightful throne. How exciting!

The catch: Her mother is getting progressively worse and she finds that her stepfather does not care if she dies in childbirth. This is cause for much concern and prevents her from fulfilling the faun’s wishes … for a few hours.

Del Toro does an impressive job creating a fantastical underworld that seems to coexist with our own, much in the same way as his earlier effort, Hellboy, did. But Pan’s Labyrinth has a depth that was lacking in the earlier film, a depth that arises from the solid storytelling abilities that del Toro has developed in the intervening years. Thus, the film feels like a genuine fairy tale, not just another knockoff of the genre. It contains both beautiful and frightening characters and forces the heroine to make a choice that will determine her fate forever.

If the movie sounds too perfect, it’s not. Ofelia’s fairy-world struggles, while paralleling the struggles of the guerillas opposing her stepfather, are not connected to the real world. For most of the movie, she is only a little girl escaping from the horrors of war. For large segments of time we watch Vidal shoot rebels in the head, clearly enjoying himself. Other times we watch the clandestine activities of Vidal’s housekeeper as she tries to keep the rebels informed as to Vidal’s whereabouts and plans.

Instead of giving us Ofelia’s view of these events, del Toro gives us his. This pulls us out of Ofelia’s world and into “the real world.” Is he reinforcing the interpretation that says Ofelia is a crazy little girl? I, for one, did not want to believe that.

How do we see the movie then? Is it a story of fascism and rebellion and a little girl who decided to live in her head? Or is it the story of dual realities existing side by side, mirroring each other? Either way, it’s a finely wrought fairy tale.

Michael Kneff lives in Nashville and works with Mission Discovery, a short term mission organization. He enjoys movies, especially ones made by Wes Anderson. Make a difference.

Chris Fletcher lives in Minneapolis where it is too cold to be alive most of the year. Therefore, drinking coffee is an obsession born out of necessity. He enjoys the humor of Invader Zim and Monty Python and thinks that William Blake should be a superhero in an Alan Moore graphic novel. Email Chris at


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