Pan’s Labyrinth

Dishonest storytelling
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2006
Director: 
Guillermo del Toro
Starring: 
Ivana Baquero, Ariadna Gil, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones
The Setup: 
Girl has to carry out a bunch of tasks put to her by a nasty faun.
Discussion: 

I don’t know, is it hype? Was it seeing this at the very top of a number of year-end best-of lists that made me expect more than I should have? Or have I just lost my sense of childish wonder? Or is it just that I don’t like being manipulated quite so badly? And professional critics HAVE to pull together ten movies they can recommend, even though for the most part 2006 was so lackluster?

Who knows, but I was pointedly NOT swept away by this annoying fairy tale. We begin with this legend that states that there was this princess who lived underground and went up to the world of humans because she heard they were having a tag sale, but she never returned—the prices were REALLY good—and it is prophesized that she will return and her father promises to wait for her. Got all that? Good. So this girl Ofelia [please tell me you know what that’s alluding to] goes with her pregnant Mom to meet Captain Vidal, the big nasty of this outpost surrounded by rebels in the hills. Ofelia is told to call the Captain “Father,” because he’s done so much for them and “It’s just a word.” The Captain seems to be more concerned with Ofelia’s Mom’s baby than the mother, and he’s absolutely sure it’ll be a son, and his heir. His father, by the way, smashed a watch at the time of his death, but the Captain had it repaired, so it works. Golly, are you getting the sense that there’s a lot here about FATHERS?

So when Ofelia stops in the woods near the compound she finds a stone figure and replaces its eye, which leads a helpful big insect to visit her that night, turn into a fairy, and lead her to this enormous labyrinth which is just behind the house. Ofelia goes down into the huge pit carved in the middle, where she meets this nasty faun who is sure that she is the reincarnated princess. All she has to do is accomplish three tasks to prove that she’s the real deal, and she’s inherit her kingdom, get to live forever, and be reunited with her father.

The first task is to go to this tree and climb inside, letting giant gross roly-polys climb all over her, then find this enormous toad with a huge slimy tongue slop all over her hand and take these three stones, which kill him in a massive bursting pustule of gelatinous goop, with the key Ofelia is to retrieve conveniently on top. With the affection this film has showed for gloppy grossness and goo so far, I was really surprised that she didn’t have to go digging through the toad’s entrails, but I guess we do have to have SOME restraint.

This task occurs during an important dinner party, for which Ofelia has been given a new and fancy dress. I’m sure you can tell just from that information what’s going to happen. This is the first point at which one starts to feel unfairly manipulated by this movie. Ofelia’s no dumb cookie, and she has a few days to accomplish her three tasks. WHY does she have to do this one RIGHT at the time of the important dinner party? And why does she have to wear her fancy new dress? Because the film needs to hit these tired fable warhorses, that’s why, and Del Toro couldn’t think of any new way to reconfigure the old tropes. Or didn’t bother.

So now she has the key, but Mom gets sick. Ofelia overhears the Captain say that if the doctor has to make a choice, save the baby. The faun gives her a mandrake root to place under her Mom’s bed to heal her. By the way, in here also is a kindly house servant named Mercedes, who warms up to Ofelia right away and becomes a kind of surrogate mother to her. By this time you have also noticed that every room in the place has golden beams of sunlight shining in—looks like something’s on fire somewhere or they’re a little behind on their dusting—and every single shot in the forest also features bright beams with glittering insects or spores or whatever in the air. You can see this in the shot below, which also quite clearly features one of my over-aestheticized pet peeves: when sunlight is streaming in from more than one direction. And, because everything seems so gosh-darn pretty, one feels manipulated.

SPOILERS > > >
So for the next task Ofelia has to go to the house of this fella who keeps his eyes on a plate in front of him, ready to screw into the sockets in his hands. This is the guy who appears in a lot of the ads for this movie. Ofelia is EXPLICITLY instructed not to eat anything off the table, because her life depends on it. She does her task, then stops by for a grape or two. Multiple fairies get all up in her face [literally] about NOT eating anything from the table [so it’s not like she forgot], but she shoos them away. When she eats a grape the blind sleeping guy at the end of the table wakes, pops his eyeballs in, and comes after her.

By this point the movie had started to alienate me, big time. Why does Ofelia eat off the table—because she has character flaws and doesn’t always do what she’s told—but if it’s going to be SO OBVIOUS then why don’t they put a title at the bottom of the screen that says “She has character flaws and doesn’t always do as she’s told,” and spare us from having to sit there watching all this when we could see what was going to happen the second the faun said “Don’t eat off the table?” It doesn’t sit right because the movie has thus far established Ofelia as stubborn and headstrong, true, but obedient to the faun and desperate to do whatever he says in order to become the princess. Which is not to mention that he explicitly told her that “her life depends on” not eating there. Which is not to mention that the fairies, whom she trusts, are also quite clearly warning her off. So it is out of character for her to eat from the table, and it grates because the only reason it’s happening is because we have to hit all those traditional fairy tale story elements. Can’t you just send me the PowerPoint and not make me sit through this?

It’s not long before we figure out that Mercedes is helping the rebels by giving them supplies out of the store room. Then a bunch of rebels are killed in the forest, one being captured. We continue our interest in explicit, up-close gore as the prisoner is tortured. The doctor, also on the rebel’s side, kills him, then the Captain kills the doctor. Ofelia’s mother dies during childbirth. The faun comes to give Ofelia one last chance [he was pissed that she ate the grapes, which one of the fairies reported immediately upon her return], and orders her to steal her infant brother and take him into the labyrinth. In here, Mercedes’ activities were discovered and she was taken to the storeroom to be tortured. But she has secreted a small knife in her apron, frees herself, and stabs him in the back, front, then cuts his cheek open by sticking the knife in his mouth. Having hurt him, she escapes.

This is the exact moment when my lack of enthusiasm for this film turned to active hate. WHY didn’t she kill him? Did she think that having his cheek opened might make him reassess his priorities and say “You know, maybe I’ve been a little hard on those rebels. Maybe they don’t need to be wiped out after all. We can all co-exist happily! You know, sometimes it takes a slashed cheek to give you that little wake-up call.” We can tell from Mercedes’ character and behavior leading up to this that she isn’t that stupid. So why does she do it? BECAUSE THE STORY REQUIRES THAT HE BE ALIVE TO THE END, TO HAVE HIS SHOWDOWN WITH OFELIA. That is the only reason. And that is just flat-out dishonest storytelling. To betray your characters [not to mention your audience] just because you need to hit plot points. I could be at home jerking off, instead of getting jerked off by this film.

So Ofelia runs to the center of the labyrinth where she is met by the faun, who tells her to drop a few drops of blood from the infant into the hole. He only asks for a few drops, so I don’t see what the big deal is, but Ofelia refuses to “shed the blood of an innocent,” and the faun tells her to piss off. Then the Captain shows up and orders her to give him the baby, then shoots her. And then you think—oh yeah, we knew she was going to die from the first frame, when we saw her lying dead. Plus she's named Ofelia, so we know from the start she's going to die. In fact, the entire film could be looked at as another “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge” kind of thing, where all this happened in the final split-seconds before dying.

The Captain exits the labyrinth, and is met my Mercedes, now ready to do some killin’, and her brother and all the rebels. They take the baby. The Captain crushes his watch to preserve the hour of his death and makes a request that they give it to his son. Mercedes says no, “He won’t even know your name.” And shoots him. Then we see that Ofelia has been made a princess and has a throne next to her father and mother, and is now reunited. And it feels so good.
< < < SPOILERS END

So it’s all about the yearning for the father, what does it mean to have a real father and what does it mean to have a father in name only, and passing on a name to one’s children as a way of leaving a mark on this Earth as a form of immortality, wrapped up in a lot of other stuff about immortality. Fine, I get that.

But be honest about it. It is insulting to your audience [not to mention one’s own story-writing skills] to CHEAT in such ways as having characters act out of character because they need to supply plot points. Yes, I know these kind of things happen in the old fairy tales, but those were written a hundred years ago, and you know what? When those characters disobeyed edicts or made foolish decisions, it worked within the personalities of their character. Pinnochio ran away because he was eager to establish his own identity. Snow White ate the apple because she is good and pure and wanted to help the poor elderly. Here things happen simply because that’s the kind of stuff that happens in fairy tales.

Plus, if you’re making an updated fairy tale, then how about you update it or find an interesting new way of doing it? In the case of Ofelia vs. the eyes-in-hands monster, why not have her use the intelligence we’ve spent the whole first hour of the movie establishing, and simply have her move the eyeballs off the plate? That would show how clever and resourceful she is, and she could still get in trouble for eating off the table, I suspect that thing could still be pretty scary without eyeballs, and it all wouldn’t depend on her having a completely out-of-character moment simply because we need to trend toward the next point in Del Toro’s faulty story arc. Guess what, Guillermo? If you have to cheat to make it all fit, then it’s not working.

On a smaller point, I really don’t need to have my face shoved in all that gore and pus. Okay, I get it, fairy tales are nasty things filled with brutal violence, but it can be suggested without the mechanics of how liquor seeps through a person’s cheek once it has been slashed. But I have found all of Del Toro’s movies to be a little more gruesome than they need to be, so he must find some meaning in it.

I also probably wouldn’t have had such a strong reaction if I wasn’t seeing this movie on so many year-end best-ofs. Suffice to say I don’t get it. You know, if you’re going to put your critical faculties on hold and be swept away by something, why not do it for Wicker Park or The Butterfly Effect 2 or something that ONLY works in the context of severe suspension of disbelief? But I suspect that those are the things that appeal to me, and this movie appeals to the things that other people appreciate. But that's it: It's perfectly okay to LIKE it, that's fine, but you don't need to therefore drum up some case that it is legitimately GOOD.

So that’s it. In my view, a dishonest movie that is well-made, but manipulative and lacking in the writing. I was happy to hear that both my friend and boyfriend who I went to the movie with were not carried away with enchantment either, although they weren’t as incensed as I was. When I complained about the scene in which the fairies were explicitly warning Ofelia not to eat the food, my boyfriend said “Well, and that stupid fairy didn’t have to tell on her, either.” “I know,” My friend replied, “That was RUDE. But that’s the moral: never trust a fairy.”

Should you watch it: 

A lot of other people love it. I mean, LOVE it.