Guillermo del Toro (Blade II, Hellboy) takes up his native tongue again in Pan’s Labyrinth. Like 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone, the movie fuses del Toro’s attention to Spanish Franco-era history with his vivid brand of grotesque fantasy. The finished product flies across the screen like a children’s storybook splattered with the blood of a war tome.
The threat of fascism is reflected in the sheer ugliness of del Toro’s monsters—one pink-fleshed creature uses eyeballs stuck in his hands to see—provoking his young hero Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) to confront evil for the first time with the revolutionary ideals of her favorite fairy tales. Nestled in the forest mansion of a Franco subordinate who has married her widowed mother, Ofelia performs a number of tasks for Pan, a magical creature who lives in an underground tunnel system, along the way helping a group of revolutionaries to cripple her stepfather’s tyrannical rule.
Del Toro, ever the rebel, questions our blind obedience to authority, regardless of how benevolent it appears. Ofelia has to negotiate her commitment to her imaginary friend and the revolutionary cause with her inherent love for her family. In the last leg of her battle, she chooses the life of her newborn brother above everything else—she passes the fairy tale test. Del Toro sets up a moral code based first on family, home and community. That is at the heart of everything his characters are fighting for.
Whereas some Hollywood genre movie directors distinguish between their studio work and their “real” filmmaking—one soulless and the other personal—the divide between Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth is only superficial because even when his stories are stuck in the imaginary world full-time, del Toro always treats fantasy as a serious means for political thinking. His movies are perverse, colorful tributes to the heroic impulse, that rare and always tragic quality in his protagonists. In other words, they’re everything comic book movies like Batman Begins should be but aren’t.