“my mother told me to be wary of Fauns…”

Going into Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) I expected something more or less along the lines of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an unfortunate misconception on my part. Most seemed to be rather awed and quite moved by the film’s emphasis on the sadistic “reality” as opposed to the whimsical “fantasy,” but for me it felt like Ofelia’s supernatural journal was ever allowed enough time to really develop into any kind of truly vivid or meaningful experience. It would be like a film of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that kept cutting from her experiences in fantastic fantasy world to the banal realities of what was going on with her family and cat back home. That said, I can recognize its seductive qualities, but was turned off by what I found it to be one of the most uncomfortable theater experiences I’ve had since—well, a long time. I’ve read the arguments that the relentless depiction of the brutalities of Fascist Spain serves as a perfect counterbalance to Ofelia’s whimsical otherworldy adventures, but the escapes were far too infrequent for me as an audience member—the sadistic violence had me cringing for too long and too often to find much enjoyment in anything else. I suppose I was just disappointed that there never seemed enough time allotted for Ofelia, let alone audience members to explore this mystical realm, and certainly no room for it achieving any kind emotional relevance—it just becomes more or less a means of playing connect the dots between Ofelia’s two realities. By the end it seems to be little more than a depiction of a test (the pacing suggests an “another one down—next!” attitude) rather than a thoughtful exploration of what happens when the realms of fantasy and reality bleed into each other.

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10 thoughts on ““my mother told me to be wary of Fauns…”

  1. I can’t disagree with what you said about the lack of time devoted to Ofelia; i think balance is something Del Torro hasn’t quite mastered yet. My main criticism of The Devil’s Backbone was that the film didn’t know if it wanted to be a drama, a thriller, or a supernatural fantasy – ultimately coming off as a bit of each but in all cases unsatisfactorily.

  2. Codeknown- I know you saw that vivalarsx recommended The Devil’s Backbone to me on IMDb, but if it has a lot of the same problems as Pan’s Labyrinth, well…

    -jesse

  3. Vivalarsx’s Response at the Classics Film Board on IMDb:

    That was kind of my beef with Pan’s Labyrinth also–though I think I liked it a bit more than you did. Yes, her “real” world was miserable and deadly, but I never caught more than a hint that the fantasy world was that much better. Well, obviously, it was, but it was still a lot of work and not much real joy.
    Spin, if you haven’t seen it, try The Devil’s Backbone, another Del Toro film along the same lines (only better by far). Also brutal, but less disturbing.

  4. SabrinaFayre’s Response on the Classics Board at IMDb:

    I agree Ofelia’s fantasy world was in many ways more terrifying and dangerous than her real world but the difference (for me) was that what she was going through in the fantasy world was a means to achieving a wonderful goal whereas there was no end in sight to the inescapable pain and terror of her real world.

  5. Ali’s Response on the Classics Board at IMDb:

    I know, I’m being difficult, and both films date back (quite) a few years in my memory. Of Pan’s Labyrinth I have to say that most of my problems were with the fantasy, which is surely not intended as an escape but as a re-formulation of unthinkable reality into a more comprehensible – and negotiable – narrative – which was probably what fairy-tales always were. A fascinating idea, spoiled by the usual gunge (in the toad scene), a clumsy meeting of fact and fantasy (when the labyrinth opens, with a roaring special effect and profound improbability), and a depressingly trite ‘translation’ of the possible fantasy ending. (The ‘real’ ending, on the other hand, made no compromises and even succeeded in complicating the Captain slightly). When mother says ‘the world isn’t like your fairy-tales’, I think she makes the most vital mistake in the film: if she’d realised that fairy-tales, in an active mind, are, precisely, just like the world, she might have had a means of resistance.

    Bon, just my take.

  6. Angel’s Response on the Classics Board at IMDb:

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth, but my thoughts on the film were quite different from yours coming out of it. I don’t remember the particulars, but I remember seeing some very minute and solid connections in the movie to some actual fairy tales that I read in a Mythology/Folklore class I was taking last semester. It especially reminded me of the story of Childe Rowland, I think. One thing that surprised me about a lot of the stories I read in that class were that a lot of them had some disturbing details that didn’t seem very child-friendly, unlike things such as Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland. A huge theme in a lot of those stories was a wicked stepmother/stepfather, which is an archetype which Ofelia’s father certainly fits. These wicked stepmothers/stepfathers would be just about as cruel as they could be—much like the fascist officer in Pan’s Labyrinth. There were other details about the brutal real life part of Pan’s Labyrinth that I saw parallels to old folktales in, but, regrettably, I don’t really remember them now. And, I thought that the details of Ofelia’s fantasy world accorded very well with what little I know of traditional folklore, which doesn’t portray fantasy realms as lightly as modern day children’s stories do. In other words, fantasy realms were hard and cold places sometimes, much like the real world. It is this nature of people’s original conceptions of fantasy worlds that I liked about Pan’s Labyrinth. And the fact that the film contained some fairy tale motifs in the real world segments as a good way of blending the real and fantasy worlds, so that they seem to mesh into one whole, IMO. Strictly speaking, I mean that I thought the point of the film was that the fantasy and real worlds really weren’t that much different from each other, and I really don’t see how other people see it otherwise. I guess that may be a message that some don’t like, though, but it’s true to folklore, anyway. I don’t really think they counterbalance each other, as they are really not opposites. As for it being hard to watch—I agree. (Really, though, if everything that is contained in old fairy tales was visually depicted, it would make for a rather unpleasant viewing experience.—A lot of them have some strange and violent plot points.) I remember, for some reason, though, that out of everything in that film, the only thing that made me super squeamish was when the stepfather was giving himself stitches. Go figure.

  7. Discussion stirred by Angel’s Response:

    Good points, Angel! And it all makes sense within the context of the film. But I’ll reiterate what I said to Spin–and maybe word it a little better: if the fantasy world is Ofelia’s “escape” why doesn’t she escape into a nicer world, one in which she is allowed to experience joy and happiness? Even the relief and comfort at movie’s end are double-edged and ambiguous. It’s true that Ofelia’s background as an avid reader would make her familiar with the not-always-cheery world of folklore and fairy tales, but I don’t think that’s what she would pick for herself as an alternative. I could be wrong, though; one of the nice things about the film is that everything isn’t spelled out neatly. I actually liked the movie–but it did bother me that the fantasy world seemed so full of hardship. Talking about heaping horror upon horror. (vivalarsx)

    I agree that it wouldn’t make sense for Ofelia to “escape” into a world that was every bit as cruel as the real world. However, maybe if we think that Ofelia’s “fantasy” world was actually real in some way, then everything makes more sense (IMO, anyway). After all, this movie, like any fairy tale, is a work of fiction. In fairy tales, there usually is a “real” world that exists at the same time as the frightening fairy tale world. If the movie were to follow the formula of an old-fashioned folktale, then, in it, both worlds would be real. Anyway, I liked that the fantasy world in this movie was very much like those found in old fairy tales and that it wasn’t watered down like it is in much modern fare. Or—to take another viewpoint on the “escape” issue, maybe Ofelia imagined a world for herself in which she had to endure hardship because she liked the idea of getting a reward for enduring everything. Doing so, it allows her to easier deal with the “real” world she inhabits. Maybe imagining that there’s something good waiting for her at the end of all of her suffering gives her the strength to survive her real world conditions. Or maybe she just likes adventure. But I like to think that Ofelia’s fantasy world, in the context of the movie’s world, was real, which would explain why it wasn’t so “nice.” (Angel)

  8. Good–another who doesn’t buy into the buzz. I’m in agreement that the film never fully develops the reason for its reality/fantasty narrative cuts, whether they be seen as escapes for a delusional girl or allegorical parallels to an event in the Spanish Civil War (I don’t think they work either way). The whole film feels too fractured and incohesive due to this narrative instability. There are moments in the film when the plot is focused on del Toro’s delusional Alice in wonderland (did you like her dress?), Ofelia, and, at the conclusion of these scenes, the camera playfully cuts back to Vidal and the Spanish civil war backdrop. When returning later to Ofelia, it feels jarring — almost as if we’ve gone back to a different film. It cuts the emotional potency in half. For a director who seems to be so assuredly in control, the narrative weaving is hardly smooth.

    I also had a large problem with the film’s lack of perception on human relationships. Case in point: Maribel Verdu’s character; Verdu is the MVP of the film, though, for carrying the burden of pulling everything together at the end without actually being a legitimate character. Apparently, her and Ofelia are meant to bond over the period of the film, yet Del Toro is too busy being sadistically violent and grotesque, while focusing on black and white good vs. evil (because, you know, that’s how war is–no moral ambiguity) to focus on such a fundamental and essential piece of the narrative that may give him the emotional impact he’s going for by the end.

    At least the film sort of looked pretty.

  9. Didn’t realize you weren’t a fan either, Nick. I’m in complete agreement–you’re much more eloquent on the film’s shortcomings than I was. And you come across something I failed to mention in my own review–that more of Verdu’s character could have helped the film immensely.

    And I’m still figuring out how to balance my blogging and message board participation. Several of the defenses I got on IMDb were extremely valuable, and this is my way of preserving some of the discussion that sprung up around my review (IMDb deletes all threads/posts after several months). And no, it’s a different Ali, this time short for Alison, a film professor from Liverpool. :)

    Thanks for responding.

    -jesse

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