Guillermo del Toro’s movie Pan’s Labyrinth continues to capture the hearts and imaginations of audiences worldwide, 10 years after its first general release in Spain on October 11th, 2006. Set in post-Civil War Spain in 1944 during Franco’s fascist regime, the story centers on Ofelia, a young girl who travels with her pregnant mother to the countryside to live with her stepfather, a sadistic army captain. Once there, she finds herself immersed in a world of ancient magic that bears both promise and danger.
At the time of its release, Pan’s Labyrinth was met with widespread critical acclaim, winning 97 awards, including three Oscars. But perhaps the greatest measure of the film’s success is its continued popularity. Hailed a modern classic, Pan’s Labyrinth frequently tops "best of" lists, is widely considered del Toro’s greatest achievement and is ceaselessly analyzed by students and critics alike.
What is it about Pan’s Labyrinth that continues to enthrall us a decade later? Why did it resonate so much with audiences then and why does it continue to do so now? The answer lies not within any single element of the movie; rather, there are a variety of reasons for why Pan’s Labyrinth endures such long lasting popularity.
Appealing To A Wide Audience
Pan’s Labyrinth straddles the boundaries between many genres and masterfully balances each one so that it truly has something to offer everyone. At once a work of gritty historical fiction and a fantastical fairy tale, the movie is both realistic and magical. Yet, these halves do not merely coexist; events in the fantasy world eerily mirror those in the "real" world, providing important clues as to the deeper meanings of the film.
As historical fiction, it faithfully captures the time period in which it was set. From the characters’ clothing to the brutality of the regime, Pan’s Labyrinth dutifully reveals an important piece of Spanish history. Central to this storyline is Captain Vidal’s unwavering determination to stamp out the rebels in the countryside at any cost. The dictatorship demands complete and utter control, while the resistance is fighting for their right to freedom. The stakes are high and the costs of war unrelentingly bloody.
On the fantasy side, the movie is no less dark and features fairies, magical books and terrifying carnivorous monsters. Soon after arriving at the military base, Ofelia is visited by a faun who tells her that she is the long lost princess of the underground fairy realm and that she must complete three tasks if she wishes to reclaim her throne. The quest is fraught with danger and Ofelia is forced to rely on her bravery and cunning to slay the monsters and return home. Thus, Pan’s Labyrinth is perhaps most importantly a modern reimagining of a fairy tale that is as dark as Grimm’s original tales.
Our Love Of Fairy Tales
Another possible explanation of Pan’s Labyrinth’s popularity is that the film taps into our love of fairy tales. We love fairy tales because they are, in their simplest form, a battle between good and evil in which good always wins. We can identify with the "good" character, and their defeat of "evil" is immensely satisfying. Real life is never that simple, but fairy tales give us hope that things will work out in the end.
At its simplest level, Pan’s Labyrinth makes excellent use of this extreme polarization of good and evil. Captain Vidal is unambiguously evil, almost more of a cartoon character than a real man. He is cruel, narcissistic and power hungry, demanding nothing less than complete obedience. His monstrous counterparts in the fairy world are equally villainous, greedy and destructive. They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever and it is clear they must be defeated.
In stark juxtaposition to their villainy is the innocent Ofelia and the principled rebels. Ofelia is selfless, kind and courageous, while the rebels stand for freedom of thought, speech and action. There is never a moment’s doubt that they must win and that Ofelia must complete her quest. Yet, it is important to note that they are not completely good in the same way the villains are completely evil. Ofelia and the rebels are normal people with flaws, making it easy to identify with them.
While some fairy tale elements, such as the rule of three, are left intact, Pan’s Labyrinth also manipulates classical elements to create something new. Rather than a damsel in distress, Ofelia is a heroine. And it is not an evil stepmother, but an evil stepfather who enters her life. As a result, Pan’s Labyrinth is inherently familiar to us, but also innovative in ways that invite us to watch more closely.
Open To Interpretation
Pan’s Labyrinth is completely open for individual interpretation. The movie never provides any concrete answers and you are left to piece together the plot in a way that makes the most sense to you. Morals and lessons are never overtly revealed and how you interpret the more ambiguous parts of the film can create new meanings.
Some analyze the movie from a purely political point of view and see it as warning against extreme right wing governments. Others see the film as a coming-of-age story about the trials of growing up. Some see it as both things at once, while others add in feminist or Freudian interpretations. Some see the monsters as metaphors, others see the fantasy world as a way for Ofelia to cope with her harsh reality. There are also themes of death and rebirth that can be explored.
Like any great work of film or literature, Pan’s Labyrinth’s strength lies in the fact that it is not constrained to any time or place, but can be interpreted by anyone. Every viewer can bring something new to the discussion and can relate to the movie in their own way.
Or perhaps most simply, Pan’s Labyrinth’s popularity has to do with the film’s exceptionally beautiful design. Highly stylized and carefully constructed, there is not a single element out of place. Each scene bursts with details and everything about the design is linked to the central themes of the film. For example, the fantasy world is colored in warm crimson and amber tones with soft, rounded shapes, while Vidal’s world is one of cold blues and greens, and harsh lines.
All the characters are fully realized and dimensional, including the fantastical creatures. The Faun and the Pale Man in particular are visually striking and extremely memorable. Both are intricately designed and wholly unique right down to their movements. Even the movie’s highly atmospheric theme song is impossible to forget.
In addition, the narrative flows seamlessly and the story is completely immersive and engaging. Pan’s Labyrinth creates a world that is vividly real and a plot that is easy to follow in spite of all its complexity. Quite simply, Pan’s Labyrinth is a pleasure to watch.
Pan’s Labyrinth’s popularity is due to a number of factors that combine to create a movie that is both memorable and meaningful. It is a movie that rewards multiple viewings and one that can be watched time and time again without ever losing its appeal. And, most importantly, it is a movie that will continue to remain popular for years to come.
If you are a fan of the dark, magical world of Pan's Labyrinth, then you're likely familiar with Tim Burton's works, many of which use similarly dark themes:
What did you think of Pan's Labyrinth? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!