After her father dies in the Spanish Civil War, it's understandable why the almost-adolescent Ofelia isn't excited about moving with her pregnant mother to her new stepfather's military outpost in the Spanish countryside. Once there, her dread is almost immediately confirmed with a cold, scolding greeting from him that shows the two females to be more of an interruption than welcomed family. Captain Vidal is more concerned about his troops weeding out guerilla fighters in the nearby woods than he is making his new daughter's acquaintance. In fact, when it comes to family, the only thing that matters to him is the son his new wife is carrying.
Surrounded by the harsh, violent reality of a fascist government exterminating its opposition, Ofelia retreats to her fairy tale books. "You're a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense," her mother gently urges. Yet for Ofelia, it's far from nonsense … especially when a dragonfly that's been following her transforms into a fairy and leads her to a mystical world beneath a garden labyrinth. Once there, she meets an age-old faun who informs her that her real name is Princess Moanna and that she's actually an immortal from the underworld. To reclaim her title and station, she must complete three dangerous tasks. To do that, she must look into the Book of Crossroads—the blank pages of which magically reveal her future.
Is this all really happening? Those around her think not. Mercedes, a kind servant assigned to watch over Ofelia, tells the girl that fairy tales are simply childish beliefs. The captain, meanwhile, harshly informs her, "Soon you'll see that life is not like your fairy tales." But it's hard to dismiss it all as juvenile imagination when, after following the faun's strange instructions to heal her sick mother, Ofelia and others watch the bedridden woman inexplicably gain strength.
The thickly layered Pan's Labyrinth reveals most of its light through extremely dark, tragic moments. At the heart of this wolf masquerading as a monster lies the idea that beauty, courage, love and truth can be found in the eyes of a child. Sometimes the only candle that stays lit in the midst of human depravity is the small flame of a child's innocence.
Recognizing her mother's depression and the fact that she has entered into a loveless marriage, Ofelia shares with her a strong bond. And she tries her best to watch over her ailing mom. Likewise, Ofelia and Mercedes form a sweet connection that's only strengthened when the servant discovers that Ofelia knows a dangerous secret of hers. "I don't want anything bad to happen to you," the girl says honestly while assuring Mercedes that she'll remain tight-lipped.
That secret? Mercedes and a doctor friend are helping the rebel fighters stay alive by supplying them with food and medicine. Once we discover the connection (one of the leaders is Mercedes' brother), we watch as she and the doctor both put their lives on the line for the sake of keeping others safe.
Digging deeper into the story, Pan's Labyrinth offers more subtle messages about the value of fearlessness and fighting for a just cause. In her fantasy world, Ofelia must face nightmarish beings and situations. Though she's barely out of childhood, her bravery has—at least in that world—far-reaching ramifications.
[Spoiler Warning] Ofelia's third task involves a life-or-death decision. She admirably risks giving up her throne and immortality (and even her own life) to keep her baby brother from being hurt. She's roundly commended for not only refusing to shed innocent blood, but also for making the right—and moral—choice.
The underlying fairy tale on which Ofelia's journey is based mentions that the princess' soul would return in another body. The faun, who describes himself as a nameless element of nature—"I am the mountain, the woods and the earth"—tells Ofelia she was born of the moon and, as the daughter of the king of the underworld, is "not of man." In a story Ofelia tells her mother and unborn brother, she creates a rose that offers the promise of eternal life if plucked. She also tells Mercedes that "the woods are home to creatures full of magic and wonder." Indeed, various magical elements are a storyline staple.
In a moving, deeply spiritual scene that invokes comparisons to God's heavenly kingdom, a guide to the underworld instructs a newcomer to "go sit by the father's side—he's been waiting so long for you." Here, there's also some allegorical dialogue about the shedding of innocent blood to save an entire people.
But I can't mention that scene without also relaying that God and the church are indirectly dismissed onscreen. Of what use have we, after all, of a God whose visible representation (a priest) blithely excuses men's extermination by reasoning, "God has already saved their souls. What happens to their bodies doesn't really matter to Him."
Later, at a funeral, a priest intones, "The essence of [God's] forgiveness lies in His word and in His mystery. Because although God sends us the message, it is our task to decipher it. Because when we open our arms, the earth takes in only a hollow and senseless shell. Far away now is the soul in its eternal glory. Because it is in pain that we find the meaning of life and the state of grace that we lose when we are born. Because God in His infinite wisdom puts the solution in our hands. And because it is only in His physical presence that the place He occupies in our souls is reaffirmed."
In a non-sexual context we see Ofelia taking a bubble bath. (She's shown from shoulders up.) We also glimpse the simplistically rendered nude forms of the small fairies as they flutter about.
Within the first 10 minutes of us meeting Captain Vidal, we watch as he calmly smashes in the face of a teenage boy and then shoots the lad's father. That's only the beginning of what amounts to a gory, extremely graphic war-meets-horror film. The harsh post-Civil War surroundings of 1944 Spain is the backdrop for firefights, ambushes and massive explosions. Scores of individuals (mostly soldiers) are gunned down and then shot repeatedly as troops rummage through the dead and injured.
[Spoiler Warning] In bloody and excruciating sequences, Captain Vidal is stabbed in the back and in the chest, then in the mouth. (We see the blade slicing in and out.) After the camera shows his open, dangling face wound a few times, it lingers as he painfully stitches up his cheek. Ofelia is shot.
One man takes a bullet in the eye. An injured rebel begs for his life but is mercilessly shot in the hand, then in the face. Another captive is hit hard in the face with one of many torture devices. After his first round of torture results in a mangled face and arm, he pleads with a doctor (who's the compatriot), "Kill me, kill me now. Please." With both men's hands holding a syringe of an assumedly lethal substance, a close-up shows the injection.
After the same doctor decides a fighter's wounded and infected leg must be amputated, we see a split-second shot of a saw blade digging into bone. Crudely drawn pictures of a bloodthirsty creature that devours babies depict this demonic-looking being impaling infants with a sword. In Ofelia's fantasy world, his lair includes a massive pile of small bones, and we watch as he uses his jaws to rip fairies apart.
Ofelia bites her finger hard enough to draw the blood required for a mysterious remedy. Before and during giving birth, the girl's mother is shown with blood saturating her robe and sheets.
Two other especially disturbing scenes are worth calling out: After finding Ofelia trying to escape, the captain violently shakes his daughter and hits her across the face. As he walks out he also threatens her life. In a separate instance, a fantasy creature that looks like a human baby is tossed in a fire, and its haunting screams of pain continue for some time as it slowly dies.
Crude or Profane Language
In subtitles, God's name is misused at least twice; Jesus' is abused once. The f-word is invoked four times, once in combination with "mother." The s-word appears once or twice. Almost 20 other profanities are tossed in—mostly by the captain, who calls his daughter a "b--ch."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Captain Vidal smokes cigarettes in several scenes and brags about having access to real tobacco. Mercedes steals some of it for her brother and his fellow soldiers. The captain frequently downs shots of hard liquor and pours a glass for Mercedes during a conversation. He and another character use alcohol to numb physical pain. A doctor orders Ofelia's mother to take sleeping drops to ease her discomfort; Ofelia later uses the medicine against the captain.
Other Negative Elements
A giant toad grotesquely vomits itself out of its own skin to reveal a valuable object for Ofelia.
Dreamlike with its dark creativity and littered with subtext, Pan's Labyrinth is a Spanish-language nightmarish fairy tale that's decidedly not for children. Even most adults won't want to (and shouldn't) indulge its grim excesses.
Just as the fairy tale medium began many centuries ago, there are no singing, dancing dwarfs or candy-covered gingerbread houses to be found here. Those age-old fables were originally intended to keep both children and grown-ups in check using fear. This story seeks the same result—in reverse. By that I mean that it seeks to keep people from submitting to what can sometimes be mindless checks by filling them with the fear of what happens when you don't think for yourself. (Fascist ideals carry the day, for instance.)
Instead of juxtaposing a beautiful imaginary world with a horrific real one to illustrate how bad things have gotten for Ofelia, writer/director Guillermo del Toro (who helmed Hellboy and Blade II) masterfully parallels Ofelia's ghastly reality with an equally terrifying and ghostly fantasy. The monsters she faces in the ripped-apart wonderland she enters serve as reflections of the ones she interacts with above ground—most prominently, her callous and cruel stepfather.
"I have been fascinated by fairy tales and the mechanics at work in them since my early childhood," del Toro explains. "I have enjoyed reading the original versions of Grimm's Fairy Tales and have always found that the form itself lends easily to deeply disturbing images. Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde, in fact, have some tales of thinly veiled S&M, full of horrific and brutal moments."
With that in mind, the Mexican filmmaker set out to disturb audiences with horrific and brutal moments. The result is a Saw-meets-Narnia-like film that includes intensely graphic and nauseating violence. Del Toro's unspoken argument is that, to create the effect of humans as monstrous and unfeeling as the beasts that reside in the labyrinth, such atrocities must be shown rather than just hinted at.
That endure-for-the-message approach is somewhat plausible in theory. But when moviegoers begin to notice how much the camera seems to enjoy every gaping gunshot wound and flesh-ripping knifing, it gradually becomes less convincing. And by the time the lens zooms in—and camps out—as the captain takes a needle and thread to his own decimated face, it seems the method has lost all reason.
There's a not-so-fine line between scorning the darkness of humanity and reveling in it. For all the film's well-deserved accolades—and indeed, it is as well-made, thought-provoking and creative a fantasy/war/horror film as you'll find—Pan's Labyrinth smears that boundary just about as frequently as Ofelia crosses back and forth between fact and fiction.