The first time I saw Pan's Labyrinth, I declared that it was on a par with The Lord of the Rings as one of the great works of fantasy filmmaking, not only of the decade but of all time. I wrote these words in expectation of Guillermo del Toro helming The Hobbit, which sadly did not come to pass, and subsequently compared the film to Let The Right One In as a demonstration of the worth and power present in seemingly familiar territory.
Having let the dust settle, and in anticipation of Peter Jackson's return to Tolkien, the time feels right to re-examine Pan's Labyrinth in a different context. And if anything, del Toro's masterpiece is even more astounding, astonishing and heart-breaking second time round. It is the pinnacle of del Toro's career to date, the culmination of all the greatness he showcased in Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, and proof that he is, to paraphrase Mark Kermode, the Orson Welles of fantasy filmmaking.
As well as being a sister film to The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth draws on a number of influences from del Toro's formative years as a filmmaker. Its extraordinary special effects, a mixture of CGI, make-up and animatronics, recall his childhood love of John Carpenter's The Thing, while its strong-willed and inquisitive female protagonist hints at his appreciation of Lewis Carroll. It is also part of a rich vein in fantasy and horror filmmaking which explores past or alternative identities bubbling to the service, something David Lynch approached in Mulholland Drive and David Cronenberg depicted in The Fly and A History of Violence.
The comparison with Alice in Wonderland helps to illuminate the huge strength of Pan's Labyrinth, which lifts it far above the more standardised, condescending fantasy that Hollywood often produces. Terry Gilliam, whose works also blend fantasy and reality, has long argued that through the eyes of a child, fairies and demons seem just as real as anything we adults take for granted. While Gilliam faltered in his own approach to Alice (Tideland is at best an admirable failure), Pan's Labyrinth genuinely makes you see the world through the eyes of a child. It doesn't do this by referencing childlike imagery in a knowing, adult way: it does it by treating the child's viewpoint as the most reliable, if not the only reliable view on offer in a world which everyone is struggling to understand.
Within the first ten minutes of the film, Ofelia has been established as the only possible point of focus. The brief backstory surrounding Princess Moanna gives no suggestion that she and Ofelia bear any resemblance. After this we are thrust straight into the back-end of the Spanish Civil War, shown a world of brutality and ruthlessness contrasted by our early sightings of the fairies in the woods. Because Ofelia is the only other person who recognises seeing the fairies, and makes no effort to deny it to herself or her mother, we naturally gravitate towards her, taking her view as ours - something that never falters in the whole of the next two hours.
The world of Pan's Labyrinth is visually extraordinary, with del Toro and long-time cinematographer Guillermo Navarro working in perfect harmony to create a unique cinematic experience. The colour palette is awash with ethereal blue light and faded pastel and watercolour tones; the lavender purple of the soldiers' uniforms looks like colourised black-and-white footage. The make-up and creatures all have an unnervingly grotesque quality, whether it's the giant toad, the Faun, or the mouth of Sergi Lopez after it has been sliced open with a razor.
Pan's Labyrinth is a film which recognises and celebrates the darkness of fairy tales, emphasising that they are not, as Ofelia's mother believes, childish stories that one eventually grows out of. There are numerous moments in the film which are really scary or deeply uncomfortable, and none more so than Ofelia's encounter with the Pale Man. This terrifying creature with sagging skin, sharp teeth and eyes in the palms of its hands, is as creepy as the witches of Brothers Grimm and as brooding and sinister as Bluebeard. The film earns its 15 certificate for his scene alone, not so much for its graphic content but from the sheer terror generated from both the design and the brilliant performance of Doug Jones.
Like all the best fairy tales, Pan's Labyrinth has a deep moral backbone buried under its layers of magic and mystery. Del Toro described the film as being about "a princess who forgot who she was", with the lead character needing not only self-belief but self-sacrifice to achieve her goal. Ofelia begins to refer to herself as 'Princess Moanna' very soon after her encounter with the Faun, but she finds herself torn between her need to complete the tasks and the love she shows for her mother and unborn brother. Her capacity for compassion towards the human world is seen by the Faun as a weakness, but ultimately it is this which proves her worth and allows her to re-join her father in the underworld.
Del Toro contrasts the dark worlds of Ofelia's monsters and war-torn Spain to make a number of points about fantasy and human nature. Fairy tales, and by extension horror movies, have often been held up by their respective fans as mechanisms to cope with the horrors of the real world: by being exposing to darkness at a young age, within a carefully controlled environment, people are better equipped to deal with real evil whenever and wherever it emerges. Del Toro clearly agrees with this: the longer Ofelia spends carrying out the Faun's tasks, the less intimidated she becomes by Captain Vidal.
Pan's Labyrinth is structured in such a way as to draw parallels between the monsters in both worlds. This is not as direct or blatant as Peter Pan, where traditionally the same actor plays Mr. Darling and Captain Hook, to make a point about children fearing their parents. The point del Toro is making follows on from the observation about the cathartic effect of fantasy and horror stories. On the one hand, the creatures in Ofelia's 'fairy tales' are not simple, frothy and easy to dismiss: even those who are on her side are genuinely threatening. On the other hand, the real world contains characters every bit as monstrous and sadistic as the Pale Man. They differ in their methods, but share the goal of crushing the human spirit and imagination, whether through physical torture or psychological humiliation.
The film is a masterpiece of directorial skill which finds del Toro at the top of his game. His choice of shots and camera angles is masterful, maintaining intimacy with the characters even during the moments of great splendour or breathtaking human tragedy. Individual shots, like the blood trickling down Ofelia's fingers or the screaming mandrake root, are shot in intense close-up to emphasis the pathos of the situation. Equally impressive is the seamless editing, which allows fantasy and reality to blend without effort. In one memorable shot, we move from the toad's kingdom in the base of a tree to the soldiers in the forest through a simple pan of the camera.
Pan's Labyrinth is also a deeply political film. Set at the end of the Spanish Civil War, it shows how fragile and vulnerable fascist rule is in reality. The wellbeing of the base depends greatly on the personal strength and charisma of Vidal: when he begins to be undermined or express doubts, the whole system quickly collapses. As with Ofelia's storyline, it is a case of imagination and ideals triumphing over the cynical, the ruthless and the cold-hearted. The ingenuity of the rebels in the woods seems no match for military might, but it is this ingenuity, self-belief and self-sacrifice which ultimately eliminate Vidal.
Pan's Labyrinth is a peerless masterpiece among fantasy films, rivalling The Lord of the Rings for the title of greatest fantasy film of our time, if not all time. Del Toro's superb direction and incomparable storytelling are reinforced by amazing performances from Ivana Baquero as Ofelia and Sergi Lopez, following on from his villainous turn in Dirty Pretty Things. Its horrific beauty and overflowing imagination makes for two hours of mesmerising cinema, culminating in a final scene which is both heartbreaking and triumphant. It is one of the great films of the decade, and the jewel in del Toro's golden crown.