The Motifs of Pan’s Labyrinth

Previously, I’ve written articles about another of del Toro’s films, The Shape of Water, and touched on his adaptations of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series. But I’ve never written about my favorite Guillermo del Toro story, Pan’s Labyrinth. I believe it’s the perfect combination of del Toro’s stylistic and literary motifs. Massively inspired by fairy tales and myths, Pan’s Labyrinth follows the story of Ofelia, a girl who moves to a remote military outpost with her pregnant mother to join her new army captain stepfather. Soon after her arrival, Ofelia discovers a secret about herself and so begins her adventure.

This film opens like many great fantasies do, with a story. The narrator explains there was an Underworld princess who longed to visit the Human world. However, when she came to the surface, the bright sunlight wiped her memory, and she died not knowing who she was. Her parents, the King and Queen opened entrances to the Underworld around the globe in case her reincarnation decided one day to return. But unlike many fairy tales, Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t set in faraway castles or distant lands long ago, but in Spain, 1944, during the beginnings of the Franco regime. Despite this being a fantasy film, much of it takes place in the world we know. Therefore, when Ofelia begins her story, there’s an element of real peril.

Ofelia spends much of the film alone. She is the only child present and must navigate a world run by adults as a pre-adolescent girl. Ofelia relies entirely on her own actions, with no help from friends, an animal sidekick, or elder guardian. From depending on her own decisions, Ofelia learns choices have consequences. To make things more difficult, Ofelia has no magical abilities. When she falls into peril, she can’t just wave a wand and escape. This might have been one of the first films where I was unsure the protagonist emerge unscathed.

At eleven years old, I was younger than the target audience (the film has a “15” rating in the UK). This was the first film I watched having a young protagonist, despite being made for adults. Previously, I believed that a child lead meant a children’s film, and an adult character meant an adult film. Pan’s Labyrinth took everything I knew about storytelling and shook my world. This lead to me discovering other films by del Toro and becoming a lifelong fan of his work.

Pan’s Labyrinth spent a long time in production, with del Toro jotting down ideas over a space of 20 years. His original idea was a story about a pregnant woman who falls in love with a faun, but this morphed into the tale of a girl with a pregnant mother. del Toro would later have a woman fall in love with a supernatural creature in The Shape of Water. It wouldn’t be a del Toro film without a dark atmosphere. With other directors it come across as being trite or “edgy”; luckily, del Toro has enough talent to make his aesthetics work. Despite fauns having a long history in mythology, his faun has several unique features. Instead of looking like a human, the faun has a grayish skin hue and elfish eyes. He looks as though he has emerged from the dense forest surrounding him. Perhaps this is where he has been waiting this whole time?

This film has many monsters, but those who have seen it know who is the greatest monster of them all. del Toro’s world uses both cold colored scenes (using palettes of blues, greens, and grays), alongside glorious metallic shades. The result does not clash hideously, but balance each other out. After all, how can you have darkness without light?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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