Written by Monster Awarness Month team member, Harry Markov
Celebrating the monsters in cinema can’t be complete without mentioning the monsters in our mythology. Pan’s Labyrinth is the perfect example of how the monstrous in our folklore can be assimilated in the cinematic format, creating a modern, dark fairy tale for adults. Unlike a lot of the entries in the Monster Awareness Month, Pan’s Labyrinth is far from being a horror, while at the same time it displays a horrifying reality that has nothing to do with cheap scares.
I consider the setting a post-Civil War Spain in 1944 to be a dark ghastly land, where people are the true monsters as soldiers are wont to become during wars. It’s the inhuman that contrasts with the spark of innocence and humanity, though there are real monsters among their ranks. As a whole Pan’s Labyrinth impresses with how well it dances on the line of being startlingly real and tangible, and incorporeal and surreal. Yes, CGI remains a tool to bring the special effects to life. The fairies that aid Ofelia during her tasks, the sentient labyrinth that guards her from the Captain as well as the mandrake root Ofelia puts in a milk bowl to heal her sick, pregnant mother, all exist because of CGI. Yet, they are small creative touches compared to the Pale Man, who wants to eat Ofelia, or the Faun, who is Ofelia’s task giver. Guillermo resorts to older techniques such as animatronics and latex foam makeup, which transform the actor Doug Jones into both creatures.
The genuine interaction between Ofelia and the creatures is what imbues the movie with the power it has. If all the monsters were done with CGI, then the viewer would be aware that he is watching a movie. Instead, del Toro reinforces how real for Ofelia the fairyland is even if she is the only one that can see it, as is shown near the end, when the Captain captures her in the labyrinth talking to herself, when a moment prior Ofelia pleaded with the faun. Through the whole movie I wondered whether Ofelia really was the long missing princess Moanna or whether the tasks and the faun constituted her coping mechanism with a cruel step-father, a sick mother and civil unrest surrounding the Civil War.
Questioning in Pan’s Labyrinth runs as a central theme. The viewer questions the validity and the reality of Ofelia’s quest. Ofelia questions the motifs of the faun. The Captain questions the loyalty of his people, though really his questioning is far from being sympathetic. Mercedes questions the safety of her position in the house and her invisibility given by her social status in the Captain’s eyes. Guillermo del Toro has written one of the most depressing and dramatic movies about the monsters that hide within the shadows and our hearts.
Pan’s Labyrinth draws from known fantastic tropes and watching it feels as though you have been transported back into your childhood. For instance, Ofelia’s crossing in the otherworldly world, populated with giant frogs and shapeshifting insects, evokes an Alice in Wonderland atmosphere, which progresses throughout the picture. The constantly shifting labyrinth throws back to David Bowie and Labyrinth from the 80s. The magical number three resurfaces as the tasks Ofelia has to perform amount to three. Blood sacrifices, innocence and purity of the soul function as central themes.
Shedding the mortal self in order to return to the otherworldly as royalty is Ofelia’s quest in order to become Moanna again. Unlike other journeys of chosen, magical children Ofelia doesn’t return to her own world like Alice or the heirs of Narnia. The happy ending for her comes, but in the form of a bullet to her chest and her blood draining in the otherworldly king’s portal. What makes this ascent and claiming of one’s heritage as hard hitting is the uncertainty as to whether the world exists or remains Ofelia’s fabrication, a tool to escape. Yes, Pan’s Labyrinth falls into the fairy tale genre, yet, it’s a fairy tale geared for adults. Ofelia doesn’t always make the right decisions during her quest and faces the consequences of her actions.
Despite Pan’s Labyrinth’s strengths, the movie is far from perfect. Guillermo del Toro weaves three stories within the movie. First, the complex family dynamics between Ofelia, her sick mother and the Captain. Then comes the Captain’s hunt for guerilla fighters, where Mercedes supplies the soldiers with medicine and provisions. Third, Ofelia’s quest. While well acted as separate storylines, there is not much cohesion between them, in the sense that one distracted from the other two and created the effect of watching three distinct short movies pasted into one two hour extravaganza.
Even with its shortcomings, Pan’s Labyrinth remains a powerful movie, where the monsters are saviors and protectors. Where the inhuman extends a hand in order to preserve innocence in an era, where innocence died on the front line.