At the beginning of the film a mother and a daughter are riding in the back of a car. The girl is reading a fairy tale and her mother looks on with disapproval. "Fairy tales--you're a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense," she says.
Director/writer Guillermo Del Toro then spends the next two hours proving her wrong, as well as the critics who hold fantasy in a similar regard.
We've all heard it before: Fantasy is for children. It's a tired and wrong-headed belief, yet too many of the literary establishment either ignores or treats works like The Lord of the Rings or The Chronciles of Narnia with outright contempt.
Should we see a few more films like Pan's Labyrinth, however, these arguments might dissipate forever. Pan's Labyrinth is not Narnia or Wonderland. It's concerned with the hard stuff of history, grim and painful and violent and adult, but there is magic and wonder at its heart, too. It's fantasy at its best: Impossible places and beings that, while otherworldly, allow us to see the real world in a sharper focus.
For those who haven't seen it, Pan's Labyrinth takes place in 1944 Spain after the Spanish Civil War. World War II is reaching a fever pitch and it's a time of incredible turmoil and violence in Europe. In Spain, fascists of the Francisco Franco regime are attempting to take control of the country.
In the midst of these violent times, Ofelia, a young girl with an active imagination and a love for fairy tales, and her pregnant mother Carmen travel to an outpost in the mountains where a ruthless fascist force led by Captain Vidal is trying to wipe out a pocket of guerilla resistance (Ofelia's father, a tailor, was killed in the war, and Carmen and Vidal have recently married).
For the rest of the film Ofelia tries to complete her tasks as the bloody and terrible events of the real world unfold around her. A few members of the household covertly provide food and supplies to the rebels and Vidal mercilessly tortures and murders all those he suspects of aiding them. Carmen develops complications from her pregnancy and Vidal tells the doctor to save his son, not his wife, for whom he cares little. Vidal holds Ofelia in even less regard.
My only criticism was that the horrifying real world events at times threaten to overwhelm Ofelia's storyline and the fantasy elements. But Del Toro's master hand provides balance, using Ofelia's fantasy experienes to draw parallels with the fascist movement.
Del Toro also includes some homages to his fantasy influences. These include Alice in Wonderland (Ofelia descends downwards into a hole) and the Wizard of Oz (a brief glimpse of red shoes when Ofelia crosses over into the land of fantasy). There's even a nod to Jackson's Lord of the Rings--In one scene nine fascist riders surround a woman working covertly for the freedom fighters, clutching a blade to her own throat as she prepares for suicide over capture. There's others that I probably missed. One viewing is not enough to take in all of the references and allusions in this film.
The end of the movie is heartbreaking, but also uplifting, as Ofelia returns to an underground realm "where there are neither lies nor pain." Is she in paradise, or is this "underground realm" merely the cold comfort of the grave? Del Toro does not provide the answer, but offers plenty of evidence to support either conclusion.
Suffice to say that I am now very much at ease with Del Toro directing The Hobbit. After watching Pan's Labyrinth, I have no doubts he can meet my and the rest of the Tolkien fanbase's lofty expectations for this film.