Pan’s Labyrinth is a thoroughly mediocre movie—not egregiously bad, but dull and unremarkable and easy to dismiss. At least, it would be easy to dismiss, were it not for the insane across-the-board critical acclaim that it’s managed to garner. It’s not enough for these people to say “go see a sweet little fantasy flick, it’s good;” they must instead find deep and redemptive significance in what is at best a fairy tale retread with fascist gunfight appendices. But the fact that the film is a repetition of the fairy tale structure is exactly what people find so profound: Roger Ebert led the charge with his predictable declaration of “A fairy tale for grown-ups!” that was mirrored by other critics, as if dressing up a bedtime story with Franco references and bloodshed were doing anything other than gilding a wilted lily.
The film itself does little to engage the mind. We are introduced to 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she drives with an official escort into a forest compound somewhere in Spain; it’s the waning days of WWII, and her new stepfather—the bloodthirsty fascist Vidal (Sergi López)—has designs on her pregnant mother’s child, which he expects to be the son to carry on his name. In true fairy-tale fashion, the film sets up the Wicked Step-parent as an oppressive ogre so as to give the put-upon child a reason to fantasize—and perhaps subconsciously call those fantasies to life. Sure enough, she’s soon visited by a fairy who leads her into an abandoned forest labyrinth to find a wacky-looking faun (Doug Jones) at the center. Turns out Ofelia’s the reincarnation of a long-lost princess from a fantasy world (whatever it’s called; I blacked out during the exposition), and that she has to perform some tasks in order to restore her position.
To give an idea of how pedantic the film is in repeating the fairy-tale milieu, I must mention one particular scene. Ofelia is sent to retrieve an item from a room occupied by the Pale Man (Jones again), a blind monster with its eyes in its hands and an enormous table of food set in front of him; the faun informs her beforehand not to eat the food for any reason. Not “Don’t eat the food or the monster will eat you,” because that would state the reason for not eating, and thus not trigger the chase that will ensue; just a vague reference on which any intelligent being would have surely elaborated. Further, the room is full of Goya-esque frescoes of the Pale Man eating his victims, giving a fairly vivid account of what happens when you raise his ire. To me, this suggests you not stay in his general proximity any longer than you have to. But what does our girl do? She eats some grapes, awakening the Pale Man and ensuring the deaths of a couple of helpful fairies. Had anyone put two and two together, they could have easily avoided disaster, but then there would be no scene.
Of course, the film’s profundity supposedly lies not in its fairytaleness but in its being, in Ebert’s words, “a fairy tale for grown-ups”—a crossing of the childish genre with the real adult world. But this is only true if your frame of reference is extremely limited. Vidal, far from being a complex representative of adult reality, is the same monster villain familiar from a thousand bedtime stories. He’s the man who makes life miserable for the surrounding peasantry, including the partisans who live in the woods and assorted rabbit hunters who impinge on his territory. Shooting and torturing are high on his list of fun pastimes, and of course he has nothing but disdain for the girl-child, so we have no choice but to loathe him absolutely. Had Vidal been kind to Ofelia and given her and her mother a safe home, the film might have actually had some complexity—forcing our girl to choose between domestic bliss inside the family unit and the external suffering on which it is predicated. But Ofelia never really has to make a hard choice: she’s thoughtfully provided a preordained path on which she can feel safe (and, ultimately, royally pampered), while all of the evil people in the “real” world are easily identified and offer her no comfort. Fascism isn’t defined politically, it’s rather selfishly defined as whatever gives the heroine a raw deal.
Instead of a reality and a fantasy that intertwine and comment on each other, we have two fantasies that are like ships that pass in the night. Of course the “real” fascist can’t acknowledge the existence of the fantasy world (a denial exemplified by his destruction of a folk mixture designed to ease the pain of mother’s pregnancy); the fascist is himself a monster designed to get his just desserts in the final reel. Any intermingling of the “real” and the “fantastic” would immediately show that both of them are drawn from the same, feeble archetypal cloth, for the fascist lacks any human qualities that might make his rise to power logical and understandable. So the fantasy/fantasy world can’t ever encroach on fantasy/reality territory, because del Toro’s movie requires that the two worlds be hermetically sealed. Save for one deus ex machina bit close to the end, the faun and his fellow-travelers never actually impinge on the real world when anybody’s watching, making Ofelia’s position that of Big Bird proclaiming belief in the Snuffelupagus. This isn’t just a lame piece of scripting, it keeps the film from having anything to say about either of its two sides; each remains intact and unchanged by the encounter.
You wouldn’t know this from the praise being bandied about, which not only overstates the case but fails to connect with anything theoretically useful. Ben Walters in Time Out claims “few directors are so adept at conveying both the uncanny in the real and the recognizable in the fantastic,” which is a nice way of saying that both aspects are so broadly drawn as to be indistinguishable from each other. “Not only one of the great fantasy pictures but one of the great end-of-childhood elegies,” says Stephanie Zacharek in Salon, despite the fact that Ofelia runs around serving surrogate parent figures blindly while attempting to get back to her “real” family in the magical realm. And the intellectuals at Total Film make sure that we don’t miss that it’s “steeped in the kind of myth familiar from Joseph Campbell’s landmark book,” the default position of anyone attempting to justify limp fantasy. But it’s Paolo Cabrelli in Stylus who guilelessly hits the raw nerve, declaring “it does not propose the existence of magic. It confirms it.” This bit of slack-jawed awe probably epitomizes the appeal of the movie. It’s for adults who no longer have faith in childhood fantasy, but are disillusioned with the business of being adult: people who are doubly cynical, and thus doubly looking for something to believe. Pan’s Labyrinth offers a bridge between the two worlds, a both-sides-now palliative that assures us that magic is still available in a “real” world gone mad. This is what is meant by “a fairy tale for grown-ups”: a film that encapsulates weariness in adult life and spices it up with nuggets from a world of make-believe that allows you to chuck your life for the magic kingdom beneath the earth.
In reality, grown-up fairy tales look more like Blue Velvet, with its human monsters and its hero’s ambivalent stance toward same; Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey is sucked into the sensual depravity of damaged people and is changed by the experience. The fissure between reality and fantasy is better established by Celine and Julie Go Boating, with its analysis of (and intervention in) the fictions that teach us who we are. But these films both are invested in the magical infinitude of human behavior rather than the comforting abstractions of fantasy constructs; they also have an ambiguous stance over how far one can go in representing “reality” on film. Pan’s Labyrinth offers only simplistic disengagement, which makes its elevation to near-masterpiece status a little unnerving.
Travis Mackenzie Hoover is a freelance writer based in Toronto.