If you think about it, fairy tales have always been pretty brutal. There’s Hansel and Gretel—two abandoned children who are kidnapped by an old woman who plans to devour them. Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother are both eaten by a wolf, and are miraculously rescued only after a woodcutter slices open the wolf’s belly. There’s also poor Rapunzel, who is bargained away at birth by her desperate father and imprisoned in a tower by an evil witch.
Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro has no problem making his new R-rated fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth” a brutal film. The violence is sudden and disturbing, and definitely not the sort of thing a young child should see. Yet the entire film is filtered through the eyes of a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). What is remarkable about the movie is how effortlessly it captures a feeling of youthful innocence without relinquishing one ounce of horror.
Ofelia’s vivid imagination leads to encounters with some truly bizarre, nightmare-inducing creatures, but it is the non-fantasy elements of the movie that create real revulsion. The setting is post-civil war Spain in 1944, and the country’s new fascist leadership has sent all rebels fleeing for the hills. As an act of survival following her father’s death, Ofelia’s mother has become pregnant and marries the new baby’s father, a sadistic captain in the new government’s army named Vidal (Sergi López).
Her new home is an old mill out in the country that appears to be some kind of enchanted portal. As her new stepfather gleefully maims and kills local villagers just for looking at him the wrong way, Ofelia escapes into a world where she is a lost princess. A giant faun (Doug Jones, under heavy make-up) appears in the garden and he charges her with some tasks to complete before she may regain her throne.
Del Toro has always had a visually distinctive flair, and his gothic tendencies are on full display here. Mysterious faces carved in stone but grown over with moss suggest that the garden holds ancient magical secrets. The faun is no charming fellow, like Mr. Tumnus from “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Rather, he is a threatening presence, full of suspicious motives and towering over her with gnarled ram’s horns that protrude menacingly from his head. Ofelia’s bravery in the face of such a creature displays the same kind of fortitude that she’ll need to survive the real world.
Del Toro’s film reveals a sad truth— that with each life experience, one gets further and further from the naivete that makes pure imagination possible. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a tribute to the power of that active imagination, as Ofelia counters her helplessness by choosing to exist in a different reality, or more to the point—surreality.
She rebels not just against her evil stepfather, but against her mother’s unwillingness to stand up for herself. It is an effective allegory for a world war where the apathy of millions contributed to the horrors of the Holocaust, and it’s no coincidence that Ofelia is like Anne Frank, living through war the only way she knows how.
There is real magic in this story, simple in its design, and exquisitely told. Del Toro conjures up a feeling of lost childhood, where fantasy existed to help make sense of a malevolent world. Myths and fairy tales are the stories that people most often associate with childhood. No matter how horrifying a story they enclose, their moral lessons and happy endings still come as comforts. Reality just can’t compete.