No that wasn’t a typo. In Pan’s Labyrinth, a creature known as a faun comes out from the veiny undergrowth of Guillermo Del Toro’s fairy-tale. He has eyes that unsettle and horns that make you wary of his nature. He is ridiculously conceived, looking like a cross-breed between a tree and a goat. Such is the ridiculous imagination that has manifested itself into a wide splendour of magical creatures that wouldn’t be found in your wildest imaginations. The story is equally grand. Set alongside the magical world is another that couldn’t be further from reality. The Spanish Civil War has just ended, but tensions arise when the aligned forces notice a group of rebels in a nearby area. At the heart of this madness, one girl is constantly being propelled from one world to the other. Forced to reconcile her place in a traumatic reality, without losing touch with her mythical endeavours, Pan’s Labyrinth is the very bridge between the meta and the physical.
With all the narrative prowess that Del Toro has, he’s indeed cooked up magic like none other. He has quite the thing going for flora and faun(a). Pun clearly intended. Because there ain’t nothing quite like this. Trees not only house the raging inferno between opposite factions, they provide the magical essence (if you will) for all magic and myth to bear fruit. With just a handful of creatures, namely, a faun, a few fairies, a baby root, a giant frog and a pale-as-chalk abomination, Del Toro proves that it is the quality of art that matters much more than how extensive it is. Each comes bearing their own symbolic significance. But they span the whole range. From being utterly unsettling to questionably murky, whether they’re an eloquent sage-like Merlin figure or a downright nightmare personified, I’ll leave it up to you to uncover and interpret these creatures that you may never have dreamed of.
But this is even more grim than any other fairy-tale you might have known. As if the mythical weren’t already unsettling enough, our protagonist Ofelia (poor little girl she is) can’t just come running back to Momma for comfort nor Papa for assurance. Mommy is currently in a state of extreme emotional stress – Too much caught up in her own problems than to deal with Ofelia’s “childish” tales of a faun she just met. Her dad is a ruthless and cold-blooded captain of a small army – He’s more unlikeable than the most unlikeable creature in the whole film. At times, the camp butler seems like the only one able to empathize with Ofelia’s troubles but even she is caught between the crossfire of war as she has to navigate the savagery of her own predicament. Del Toro tries to meld the two worlds together, weaving in different narratives to create an engaging story. Yet at times, I was, like Ofelia, caught between shifting worlds without a sense of reprieve. Everything was just so rapid, and whilst it hit us with emotions and intrigue, the film somehow lacked consolidation. It’s also due to how I felt the film enlightened us, but didn’t really enlighten the protagonist herself.
Pan’s Labyrinth is thus flawed in that way. Still, one would be bewildered at the depth at which the film taps into our fears and wonder, often mixing the two in surprising ways. Del Toro doesn’t shy away from blood. In fact he embraces it. The violence of the conflict is shockingly brutal as I’ve come to learn quickly. An early scene shows Captain just shrugging off his mistake in killing two innocents, father and son, by quipping to his soldier ‘Next time only tell me if its serious’. They were only hunting rabbits. Bloodshed constantly grounds us to what makes this film special. Even as we get lost in the animatronix and CGI, the violent turf of human machinations and cruelty pervade the screen. I’m impressed with how it was able to make Ofelia’s personal quest just as impactful as the colossal nature of bloodshed and conflict.
Shot with an uncompromising style, this weird tale makes me feel always slightly uncomfortable. I can’t quite put a finger on what it is but I’m starting to think it’s to do with my pre-conceived notions. The film has a knack for teasing out certain feelings in you, whilst holding back to maximise the fear of what’s to come; The fear of the unknown. For what it hasn’t done for Ofelia’s character growth, it certainly makes up for being a true supernatural fairy-tale – The kind that translates surges of fear and excitement and anticipation into something that viewers are able to feel in equal amounts. The end doesn’t convince me enough of Ofelia’s transformation or coming-of-age. It turns out that the faun is my favourite character in the movie. It is for his words of wisdom and seemingly contradictory unsettling appearance that makes him (at least for me) the ultimate metaphor of the film. The faun crystallizes the fabric of this fable into an age old adage; Lean not on your own understanding.