“Pan’s Labyrinth” is Neolithic in its scrawling horror, chilly as autumn in its perverted imagination, the 21st century’s proof of the “dark fantasy.” Though I haven’t considered the subcategory necessary since “Alice in Wonderland” proved that even the most innocent-seeming fantasy is incisively and queasily dark, here we are, darker than ever. “The Lord of the Rings” proved a fair point for the genre by giving fantasy back to the adults. But if Peter Jackson reintroduced us to the old stories, he did so only as we see them now. If wonderment was an apartment building, Jackson would be its doorman.
How can wonderment be an apartment building? “Pan’s Labyrinth” gives fantasy back to the child in the adult. Its wonderment is a bone-riddled cave gaping at the brain stem of your imagination. Guillermo Del Toro is its dragon.
The world of “Pan’s Labyrinth” is so off-putting and cruel that it could only be real. The Spanish Civil War has ended with the reign of the Fascists. Communist guerilla fighters claw against the regime with bolt action rifles and dirty wounds and train bombings. None of that is important until momma (Ariadna Gil) makes it real for us. “Magic does not exist,” she tells the dreamer in all of us, “not for me, or you, or anyone else.”
It’s not enough to grasp “Pan’s Labyrinth,” or the depth of Del Toro’s insight, to take its wonders as proof that momma is wrong. You only begin to understand its tragic power when you consider that despite them, or how we see them, she might be right.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) believes in such miracles with a heart of stone—she is one of those movie children, more common in paranormal horror, who never flinches at disaster or recoils at grotesquery. What she sees, and believes in, would make an army captain squirm. Only when confronted with the order to call her momma’s brusque new lover (Sergi López) her father, does Ofelia react as one would to horror. “It’s just a word,” momma says, as she urges Ofelia to forget her real father and accept the socially-imprinted weakness of her own rhetoric before the Fascist Captain. To this and only this, Ofelia responds as though she’s seen a monster.
Ofelia knows the power of words. She sees them in the veins of ruined buildings and hears them in the whispers of a tree. Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) is a housemaid for a Fascist and the sister of a Communist, but little else matters when she says to Ofelia, and perhaps to us, that she believes. She knows that no word is just a word. I seem to remember a certain headmaster wizard saying that “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” Del Toro must agree to feature the sprawling logic of a storybook in a film that’s almost about war. When the old Spanish shimmers crisply into earshot in the ruins of a myth, deep in a forest that mortals can see only as a place to shoot each other in, “Pan’s Labyrinth” seems to take on the planar, calligraphic certainty of the world’s first “movies”: those storybook frescoes the Egyptians used, as Del Toro uses film, to take awe and freeze it into their inexhaustibly colorful myths.
Del Toro uses such myth to mortify us in the dungeon depths of our own childhood uncertainty. The Pale Man (Jones again) may usurp the film on the first viewing with explicit terror—what is in my memory a slow kaleidoscope of hands and eyes and the loose skin of hungry jowls. Here too, Ofelia’s task is not a feat of adult heroism, but the simple childlike temperance of not eating from his table, despite being sent to bed without supper. In this scene, she is not our lens on the world but the point at which the gazes all meet. The horror of this scene is intrusively ocular, almost perverted in how close we come to letting Ofelia succumb to such violent danger for the sake of a goal so meager as listening to mother and not sneaking a snack.
Yet even as he does this Del Toro dazzles with his fluid grasp of mental and physical realms. He wrinkles them together in a composite series of images narrating Ofelia’s story of a poisonous rose, lost on mountaintop, whose thorns had erased the memory that the rose beneath them could grant immortality. She lays an ear to her mother’s belly, we drift with her brother in utero, pass across the belly onto mountaintop against the rose, down to beneath the house, and into the room where Ofelia sits with her ear to her brother’s heartbeat. By assigning fantasy a role not merely in the movement of words but of the camera itself, Del Toro reminds us that it always has this power. In “Beverly Hills Cop” it has this power without knowing it—to declare “Open Sesame” on the boundary between what we don’t know to be real and what we know to be fake. “Pan’s Labyrinth” simply acknowledges the film in its story.
Del Toro transcribes the borders of his reality in this scene, and passes us through spaces in enchantments of transition that you may recall seeing last as the Beast carried Belle through his castle in Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et La Bête.” The craft here is not on its level, but I could see them compiled into the same storybook. Each scene with the Faun dazzles especially. Anyone could have made him half-goat, but it’s Del Toro’s special intuition to see his carven body as a pruned, graceful bonsai, and his scenes not as horrors but as eerie orations. They are the potent, dreamy interludes that grant the movie its grace and creepy awe. Like the lullaby it takes for its theme, “Pan’s Labyrinth” reveres itself before your feelings. How it sounds to you depends on how susceptible you are to real life. How you fall asleep is a matter of how susceptible you are to see the magic in it.