“It's only a word,” Ofelia's mother tells her when instructing her daughter to call her new stepfather “papa.” Of course, nothing is ever “only a word” when it comes to fairy tales, even violent and dark ones like this.
Pan's Labyrinth is the story of a young girl trapped in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Her father is dead, her mother remarried, and she is whisked away to a remote mansion-fortress in the country. She has her books—though mother is somewhat contemptuous of her attachment to children's stories. Ofelia sees bugs as fairies and sees life as a set of puzzles to solve. She becomes caught up in a fantasy world of fauns, secret doors, and giant toads. Only in such dark times would this fantasy seem preferable to reality; she is told that she is a lost princess who must complete certain tasks to be taken back, but there is no guarantee her secret world is any better than this one. It just has to be.
As Ofelia navigates between her secret trials and the uncertain quantity of mother's new husband, the rest of the household divides its loyalties and fights their own fight. Everyone has secrets, and everyone is in danger. The film is dark and violent, though gorgeous, and I wish I had seen some other of Guillermo del Toro's films before seeing this one. I might have been prepared, then, for the fact that he is less interested in exploring the fairy world Ofelia is trying to escape to than the one she's trying to escape from. I was expecting more of the labyrinth—the trailers certainly emphasized these elements—and was caught off guard by the real-world focus of the narrative. In the end, it is difficult to determine what really happened and what didn't. It is Amelie in wartime.
But it is all put together beautifully. Ofelia is wonderful, and the rest of the cast seems to move effortlessly through the strange landscape. The cinematography is brilliant as well; there is some exciting editing using the trunks of trees to hide edits between scenes and everything's awash in a gold-green glow that alternately suggests history and fantasy. The film, indeed, bridges that gap naturally. Everything fits, ugly as it may be. Fairy tales were never benign children's stories, and neither is this.