I didn't want to comment on this magnificent film until I'd seen it
again, because its richness is such that I doubt it is possible to do
it justice after only one viewing. Even now, I'd like to point out that
this not meant to be an exhaustive review, that it is more of a
response to comments made by many sources--in the media and
otherwise--about this movie. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that so
many people seemingly did not "get" this movie in any way. However, to
me the comments that I have read are indicative of a larger problem:
that the American public as a whole--which includes lovers of fantasy--has no understanding of the potential significance of fantasy. For every Susanna Clarke, there are ten equivalents to Eragon. For every million fans of fantasy, there are only about ten who seem able to articulate a purpose to fantasy that transcends mere escapism. And never has this been so clear to me than after reading the popular reaction to what is possibly the greatest fantasy film ever made, Pan's Labyrinth.
The prevailing opinion of Pan's Labyrinth seems to be that it is about a girl who escapes into fantasy because the world around her is falling apart. The fantasy, therefore, is described in these reviews as a haven from the cruelties of her adopted father. One reviewer even extols the ending (which I will not spoil here) as a message of brightness and hope in the face of adversity.
Well, yes and no. Ofelia most certainly wants to escape, and there is no doubt that her initial motivation in reading fairy tales is exactly that. But as the story unfolds, we quickly learn that the realm of fantasy into which Ofelia has entered is no Brian Froudesque wonderland. There are no sparkly fairies, no kind old wise men, no shining gold talismans that avert the dark. Everything about Ofelia's fantasy world is either subtly or overtly disturbing, from a fairy that looks more like a giant woodland insect, to a volatile, even cruel faun, to an eyeless monster that is brilliantly, stunningly horrific. Even the mandrake root that Ofelia obtains in the course of the story is vaguely disturbing, described as a plant that "dreams of becoming human" (just one sample of the beautiful writing). Yes, you heard me. Del Toro managed to make a plant disturbing.
So I ask you: if you were going to escape, would you really choose to go to a place that resembles one of your more unsettling dreams? Or would you rather, quite sensibly, go with Brian Froud?
Bruno Bettelheim was famous for his psychological approach to fairy tales, claiming that children read fairy tales in order to make sense--a symbolic sense--of the world around them. While Bettelheim's ideas are grounded in Freudian psychology and are therefore limited to a degree by the restrictions of those theories, his main idea still stands and is clearly apparent in Pan's Labyrinth. I would posit that the reason the fantasy sequences are so seamlessly interspersed with the real-life sequences is for precisely that reason: to blur the boundaries between them, to portray them both--reality and fantasy--as being inextricably connected with one another. Ofelia's fantasy world is not her escape--it is her life, at its most symbolic essence. The horrors she faces in her fantasy world are mirrored in the real world, and one could even posit that the atmosphere of torture and blood that pervades the lair of the underground monster is something she has sensed in the house of the Captain, without quite understanding what it was. The tasks that Ofelia must complete in order to become a princess, chosen and special, mirror her real-life struggle from childhood to maturity in a world where childhood innocence has been torn to shreds.
The plot thread involving her baby brother--something that can't be described in too much detail without spoiling the film--is probably the most concrete example of this idea: most children in Ofelia's position would have been tempted to blame much of what has happened to her on her mother's ill-fated pregnancy. It was after all that pregnancy that led Ofelia and her mother to enter the world of the Captain in the first place. The baby's connection to the Captain--which he reinforces with constant references to the importance of "[his] son"--only increases what must surely be some form of conflict in Ofelia's heart, a natural antagonism that she is not even consciously aware of. This antagonism is instead submerged in her fantasy world, and her final test is a reflection of how strong she can manage to be vis-a-vis her own deep-seated desires. In the end, much of fantasy is about an exploration of the self, traveling to the inner depths, and Pan's Labyrinth is no exception.
Now I don't purport to "get " this film, really--it is incredibly complex and a variety of interpretations are to be expected, even desirable: this isn't allegory. But to interpret the entire purpose of the fantasy element in the film as "escape" is to reduce the film to a single dimension of storytelling, even thinner than allegory. Something that was made to entertain for a season and then vanish, as such a film would deserve to do. I offer my own interpretation humbly, aware that I am engaging with something that might be beyond me for the moment. I only ask that others do what I have been trying to do, which is to look deeper. You will be rewarded, I promise.