Guillermo del Toro’s dark tale of Franco’s Spain is either a fantastical allegory for the struggle against oppression or a lyrical testimony to the power of a child’s imagination as an antidote to the horrors of the adult world. The strength of the film is that it works both ways.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a bookish 11-year-old who loses herself in fairy tales, much to the dismay of her practical mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who’s enduring a difficult pregnancy. The pair is traveling the visit the baby’s father, Ofelia’s stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a sadistic, fanatical member of Franco’s army who is posted in an old mill in the Spanish countryside. It’s fairly clear from the start that Carmen married him not out of love but for financial security.
From the beginning, Pan’s Labyrinth moves forward on two parallel tracks. On the adult side, we see Captain Vidal dealing with a band of leftist rebels operating out of the nearby hills. He’s oblivious, however, to the fact that his head housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and doctor (Álex Angulo) are aiding the rebels. He’s a vain control freak who seems more interested in the well-being of his unborn son than that of his wife or her daughter.
The other half of the film either takes place almost entirely within Ofelia’s imagination or involves her encounter with fantastical creatures living within an ancient maze located on the mill property. A large stick insect seems to follow her to the mill, where it turns into a fairy who leads her into the labyrinth, where she encounters a faun, a horned creature with a goat’s legs (Doug Jones with the voice of Pablo Adán). The faun tells her that his people believe is the reincarnation of the princess of the underworld who died when she ventured to the surface. To prove herself, she must undertake three tasks. The first involves retrieving a key from a giant toad living under a tree. The key is to be used to retrieve a dagger from the evil Pale Man, who stands guard over a giant feast, but will kill anyone who eats from his table.
The film never explicitly comes down on either side of the question as to whether or not what we see is real or just Ofelia retreating into her own fantasy world to keep the horrors of the outside world at bay. The best evidence that it is all in her imagination is the fact that her fantasy quests often involving helping people like her mother or her newborn brother. On the other hand, one of her missions involves retrieving the key, and there is also a key involved in Mercedes’ aide to the anti-fascist rebels and there seems to be no direct connection between the two, other than the friendship between Ofelia and Mercedes, who seems to be the only person who takes any interest in the girl’s well being.
Even the real world takes on some of the form of the classic fairy tale, with the mill functioning very effectively as the castle of an evil king, represented by Captain Vidal. The captain is one of the more memorable villains in recent memory. He is so committed to fascism that he takes the “disloyalty” of every rebel as a personal insult, which accounts for extreme brutality in dealing with his enemy.
This is a good place to mention that Pan’s Labyrinth is most definitely not a children’s movie, despite the fairy tale elements. Captain Vidal’s sadistic approach to fighting the rebels is not sugarcoated and some the trips into Ofelia’s world would be genuinely frightening for younger viewers. For adults, however, this is an remarkable work of the imagination.