What did I tell you my friends – Boyhood didn’t win the Oscar and yet the world keeps turning. Stay rigid in your beliefs that your favorite movie is particularly better than the others and you’ll be okay. You’re right, and everyone else is wrong! The Academy can suck it!“Birdman Birdman, Boyhood Birdman…Birdman Birdman? Boyhood! Linklater! Whiplash? Fuck that!” – Yeah, that’s all I heard too.
The simple truth is that there were a lot of great films this year in the Academy Awards, and, unfortunately, this means they can’t all win. Personally I would have liked to see The Grand Budapest Hotel sweep the show, but the sad reality is that Wes Anderson films don’t appeal to everyone. I for one am thoroughly pleased that it tied for the most awards and am not necessarily upset by the fact that Birdman and director Alejandro G. Iñárritu took home top billing. After all, it could have been another snub like Crash winning in 2006 or more than just an undeserved win by Julianne Moore.
And there’s my prime example of why it all doesn’t matter. I thought the Best Actress award was a product of favoritism this year, but ultimately we can all agree that each actress had a stellar performance in their respective film. But I digress. All this talk of Oscar Snubs and Academy travesties has made me want to share my latest Graf Recommended film since it too was ‘robbed’ back in 2007.
To put it bluntly, Pan’s Labyrinth or ‘El laberinto del fauno’ is a masterpiece of modern cinema and one that unapologetically celebrates the power of fantasy and fairy tales in storytelling. Since its theatrical release almost a decade ago, I have become obsessed with Mexican director Guillermo del Toro and would go so far as to say he’s one of the most underappreciated directors of our time.
With this year’s high praise going to Iñárritu, the Academy no doubt is having flashbacks to 2014 when Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity. With the addition of del Toro – it should be mentioned that the three directors are actually very close friends and frequently offer advice and collaboration with each other’s works.
The three filmmakers often read and critique each other’s screenplays. For instance, del Toro helped Iñárritu to trim down his Oscar-winning Babel and Cuarón helped del Toro take ten minutes off of Pan’s Labyrinth while simultaneously working on Children of Men. They’re quoted as saying they believe in collaboration and not competition, and ultimately they have inspired and challenged each other into becoming extremely successful and celebrated directors.
Let me just add some additional fuel to the fire for you Birdman haters out there. Remember the whole ‘one long, continuous and unbroken shot’ gimmick? It was also a hallmark of Cuarón’s Children of Men. Oh, and the blurring of reality and fantasy found in Birdman? Looks frighteningly similar to Pan’s Labyrinth to me. I’m just saying…how’s that for ‘inspiration’…?
Hopefully, Guillermo will get the recognition he deserves for this year’s contribution of Crimson Peak. But shamefully the Academy does not look favorably on science fiction or horror as is so evident by the absence of nominations for Under the Skin or more praise for Interstellar. Oh well, that’s what the Saturn Awards are for I suppose. Maybe Crimson Peak will sneak in some nominations since it’s being called del Toro’s ‘Masterpiece’. I’ll bookmark this post for next year.
Regardless of Academy clout, Guillermo del Toro has managed to distinguish himself as a director though the poignancy of some of his films, as well as them each being incredibly personal in their storytelling. His attention to detail is unparalleled. The brilliance of del Toro is not found in his technical prowess as a director, but rather his ability to see and mastermind the entire film without ever setting foot in a studio. His films are all products of dozens of notebooks that – over decades – he has filled with doodles, plot points and general notes that are almost equally as artistic as his cinematic contributions. Pan’s Labyrinth is no exception. As the director admitted – to his incredible distress – he once left one such notebook in the backseat of a taxi. Luckily for him (and the world), the cabbie divinely returned it to him after a painstaking effort.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, we are introduced to the story through a similar mark of fairy-tales along the lines of ‘once upon a time’. Our narrator tells of an underground kingdom and a restless princess that has escaped to the surface. She wishes to know the joys of humanity and gaze upon the warmth of the sun and relish in the kiss of the wind. She instead is blinded by the sun, loses her memories, and eventually succumbs to the harshness of the surface world and dies. The prologue then ends with a glimmer of hope, as the narrator postulates the spirit of the princess may yet return to her kingdom in another age and another body to reclaim her birthright.
We then cut to a Francoist Spain in 1944 where we meet the young Ofelia (played masterfully by 11-year-old Ivana Baquero) and her incredibly pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil). The mother and daughter are on their way to a military outpost commanded by Carmen’s new husband, the sadistic Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). He is the father of Carmen’s unborn child and step-father to our protagonist Ofelia. Don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with the Spanish Civil War, I encourage you to read up on it as it is quite fascinating. For the purposes of the story, just know it officially ended in 1939, and 5 years later the fascist regime of the Francoists were still sparring with the guerrilla soldiers – the Spanish Maquis.
Putting aside all the politics, the main narrative is focused around the young Ofelia as she copes with her new and unpleasant surroundings. Her story is one of inherent mistrust and dislike for her step-father, and chronicles the increasingly worrisome state of her pregnant mother. Finding her realities harsh and unfavorable, she is subsequently led to a nearby set of ruins (El Laberinto) by a fairy. There she is confronted by a mythical faun who believes her to be the spirit of the Princess Moanna from the opening narration.
Much in the spirit of classical epics and fairy-tales, the faun tasks Ofelia with a series of trials to prove her royal status. Armed with a magic book (fitting because she’s often buried in so many similar fantasy books), Ofelia must confront some nightmarish creatures and situations while at the same time balancing the even darker realities of her normal life and the frequent conflicts with her mother and step-father.
Maribel Verdú plays Mercedes, the compassionate housekeeper for Captain Vidal that befriends Ofelia, and Doug Jones shines behind his elaborate costumes as both El Fauno and ‘The Pale Man’. After its initial screening at Cannes, it is said that the audience gave the film a 22-minute standing ovation. Pan’s Labyrinth then managed to walk away with three Oscars for Makeup, Art direction and Cinematography (for Guillermo Navarro) at the 79th Academy Awards. It lost (or was snubbed depending on your investment in the film) its nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Film and Best Soundtrack losing to Little Miss Sunshine, The Lives of Others, and Babel respectively.
While the first two of those latter films are great and deserve a watch (the third still being in my watch-list), Pan’s Labyrinth has subsequently risen to one of the greatest films of all time in less than a decade since its release. It has also earned multiple #1 distinctions including a special nod in the late Roger Ebert’s ‘Best films of 2006’. This is all further evidence that the Oscars really don’t matter, so just hug your copy of Boyhood extra hard when you buy it in a few months time.
What makes Pan’s Labyrinth such a phenomenal movie worthy of all this well-deserved praise you ask? Well, it’s exceptionally beautiful for staters. I talked about beauty in my review of Song of the Sea, but this film specifically warrants an explanation on why Guillermo del Toro has crafted the first of his many masterworks.
I mentioned before, that del Toro isn’t an ambitious technical director. He’s not controversial or out to shoot the next vacuous Oscar-bait film. Instead he pours his heart and soul into his works by celebrating the elements of stories, films and life that he is passionate about or that are personal to him. He loves monsters, fantasy and all things Comic-con and that’s why we’re privileged when he devotes himself to things like The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy and Pacific Rim. I understand if the last two aren’t your cup of tea, but they’re still incredibly intricate and his attention to detail is unmatched.
Much like Pacific Rim, where the story is essentially that giant robots fight giant monsters and punch them in the face, Pan’s Labyrinth is inherently simple in its overall story: a little girl in an unfavorable setting loses herself in a fantastical world. Del Toro is a huge fan of fairy-tales and mythology, so it comes as no surprise that he should tell an allegorical story of a little girl that wants to escape the cruelties of Spanish fascism. The Orphanage, which del Toro produced, was basically just an homage to Peter Pan, and Pan’s Labyrinth could easily be interpreted as the director’s celebration of Alice in Wonderland since there are several similar narrative elements (and even a throwaway rabbit reference early in the film).
The one thing I should preface about Pan’s Labyrinth however, is that it’s not a Disney, ‘kid-friendly’ film. It’s violent – almost disturbingly violent. It’s Der Struwwelpeter violent. It’s the old-school kind of fairy-tale that’s incredibly dark and could easily feature our heroine getting eaten alive if she takes one wrong step kind of violent. Frightening as it may be, this is also the realm in which Guillermo del Toro thrives. He’s a master of horror, storytelling and fantasy that will settle for nothing less than a polished reproduction of his imagination. It’s hell on the cast and crew, but ultimately we’re rewarded when we get genuinely terrifying creatures like El Fauno and the horrifying Pale Man. There’s a reason this film won the award for makeup and art direction.
Simplicity is beautiful, and that’s why this film has become so revered. Behind the ‘little girl and her imagination’ premise, the film is also incredibly complex and multifaceted with layer upon layer of symbolism, allegorical elements, and an almost dreamlike narrative. Del Toro wastes no frame of his film, as even the most violent scenes are purposeful rather than gratuitous. There are no superfluous plot twists. There’s no elaborate use of CGI. It’s all pretty straightforward and allows the director to be unbounded in his creativity.
His characters are not elaborately complex, but they’re also not one-dimensional. Taking the sadistic Captain Vidal for example – he’s an inherently evil character for the things he does, but we at least are able to understand the man and his motivations rather than painting him as a one-trick villain. The characters are genuine and – without question – their relative performances are beyond comparison. I’m generally wary of child protagonists, but Ivana Baquero effortlessly carries the entire story on little shoulders in a manner than would make Atlas himself jealous.
What makes this film really stand out to me is the way it examines the conflict of reality versus fantasy. It’s easy enough to say ‘this is just all a product of a little girl’s imagination’, but I encourage you to pay close attention as the fantastical and real world elements begin to intertwine. It’s obviously all a bunch of allegories to decision-making and the Spanish identity since the 1930’s, but del Toro manages to make both the war story and fairy-tale blossom from each other through his creative underpinnings. His use of light and color (much like Dark City) lend themselves to the believability of the worlds and are things to pay close attention to in your viewing.
There’s nothing mundane, nothing ridiculous. Much like El Fauno, Pan’s Labyrinth is very earthly and simple (though he too is one of the biggest and most complex symbols to be had). This is a filmic gem that has earned its rightful place in my top 10 and only grows more deserving every time I watch it. It’s a poignant and beautiful tale that celebrates the elegance of fantasy and fairy-tales alike, and one that I have no doubt you will be swept away by.
Addendum: Upon reading that last line again (and given the nature of the story) I think Graf and I have finally been inspired to watch Spirited Away and celebrate all things Miyazaki. Anyone up for an animation binge?
The Bottom Line:
There is little to detract from the beauty of this film and any negativity I would categorize as simply being in line with one’s personal taste. I love everything about Pan’s Labyrinth and admittedly am truly captivated and more often than not teary-eyed with each additional viewing. I love Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker and storyteller. I love that he includes strong female roles in Mercedes and Ofelia. I love Javier Navarrete’s haunting soundtrack with its simple foundation in Mercedes’ lullaby. I love the layers upon layers of symbolism and the attention to detail. I love this movie and love even more than I have the internet soapbox on which to share it with you.
Additionally this is a film for which I come alive while exploring all the facets and metaphors that Guillermo has presented. I could write a book on my thoughts and interpretations of Pan’s Labyrinth, but I encourage you to dive much deeper after you’ve initially seen the film. This is a great article that at least analyzes a fraction of the film if you’re interested in critical analysis and/or personal enrichment. Careful though, it has some spoilers! So only read if you’ve already seen the movie.