Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Pan's Labyrinth

directed by Guillermo del Toro

Pans Labyrinth poster  
Pan's Labyrinth is the story of a young girl living in Spain in 1944, when civil war was raging. Ofelia's mother is expecting the child of the fascist Capitán Vidal, who she married after the death of Ofelia's father. It seems to be a union of convenience rather than of love, and Ofelia doesn't seem thrilled about having to call this man "father".

Unlike her pragmatic mother, Ofelia is a dreamer. She reads fairy stories, and she sees magic and fairies where other people would see only insects. Magic is real for her, although most of the adults are keen to persuade her to get her head out of the clouds and live in the real world.

The fantasy theme and young central character might lull you into thinking that this will be a sweet, whimsical movie. That notion is soon swept away by a scene of brutal murder that's calculated to shock even the most desensitised viewer. Pan's Labyrinth is a dark film, and its violent and oppressive tone is relentless. This story is not only disturbing because pain and death are ever-present. But these things are dealt out in a gratuitous and almost casual manner which emphasises the horror of the situation.

Ofelia and her mother arrive at the Capitán's village, outside of which there is an ancient labyrinth. When Ofelia ventures into it she finds a faun, who tells her she is actually a princess of the underworld. She has to complete three tasks in order to secure her immortality and return to her kingdom. It all seems a little like the dreams of a lonely girl who is desperate to escape her war-torn existence. But in Pan's Labyrinth the fantasy world is as dangerous and unforgiving as the real one, and there is nothing to suggest that it's really all in Ofelia's head.

The Resistance forces are hiding out in the hills, whilst the fascists attempt to starve them out by rationing all the food and keeping it locked away. Some people with the fascists are secretly helping the Resistance, although they risk being shot for this. Throughout this movie the opposition between grim and gritty war and the underworld of fauns, fairies and demons is highlighted. The wartime setting illustrates the uncertainty, brevity and despair of mortal existence, and there's a good contrast between these two aspects of the film.

In some ways it's hard to tease meaning out of Pan's Labyrinth. Certainly it's about death and sacrifice, and courage under difficult circumstances. But the characters and situations are extreme and fantastic, so it's easy to miss how this story might be relevant to today's audience. The frequent scenes of violence tend to obscure the subtler layers of meaning within the narrative.

Pan's Labyrinth is not the kind of movie that most people would want to watch repeatedly. It's so dark and full of horror that the images stay with you. It's certainly original. This is a film suited to people with morbid and bloody tastes, a bitter dose of the macabre and tragic.

Film Details

Year: 2006

Categories: Films


Classification: 15

If you like this, try:

The Brothers Grimm cover    

The Brothers Grimm by Terry Gilliam
This is one fairy tale that defies our expectations.

The Dreamthief    

The Dreamthief's Daughter by Michael Moorcock
This fantasy is set in the world of the Eternal Champion and features Ulric, Graf von Bek.

4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson
Read more about Guillermo del Toro