Fairytales are, of course, best for adults. “The Wizard of Oz,” “Alice In Wonderland,” Dickens: banish the youth from the room.
Even at first glimpse, Guillermo del Toro’s dark, magical “Pan’s Labyrinth” is daring, bold, assured, concentrated myth-making. There is suffering and death and blood is spilled and imagination is forged, yet it’s the kind of work that makes you feel truly alive. Set in Spain, 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, when rebels continue to fight in the northern mountains, a wistful, preoccupied 10-year-old girl named Ofelia (Ivana Barquero) travels with her pregnant mother to join her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez, deeply invested and simply brilliant), a Fascist officer sent to clear the hills. Ofelia’s an imaginative child: the movie soon divides into her night fantasies of labyrinths, aged fauns and helpful fairies, and as her stepfather demonstrates that his cruelty has few boundaries, the dreams start to capsize reality and become ever more detailed and inspired.
Del Toro cites, without parentheses, many artistic precursors. In her wanderings, the hungry Ofelia has traveled to a subterranean banquet with a table headed by a man with many hanging folds of flesh with no face, his eyes first on a plate before him, then plopped into his palms to create a new creature, which leads to a sudden horrible vision that partakes liberally of the eviscerating imagery of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.” Speaking to the intense, eloquent del Toro, I asked him how influence works for him: do you have to say to yourself, ‘think more boldly,’ to arrive at this kind of gorgeously fevered intensity? “The Pale Man originally had the face of an old person and then we removed the face and it became that. What I’m thinking is, what does the creature mean in the context of the movie? The girl is imagining this, which is one of the readings of the movie, and I don’t want to nullify any of the [potential] readings. If that is one of the readings, [the imagery] should be childlike. The original design for this creature was like this—‘He displays a drawing from his sketchbook, of an intricately detailed sort of iron man—‘It was very intellectual. It was like a Giorgio de Chirico-like puppet creature, you know? But one of the reasons I abandoned this design is, I said, ‘A girl would not imagine something that sophisticated. It’s like a Surrealist painting. But a girl or a boy would have imagined a creature like [the one in the finished film]. I remember when I was a kid and I would draw my hand on the paper, trace it, and I would draw a face on it or a mouth or an eye. This creature comes from me saying, how can we think more surreally or more like a child, without it affecting the efficiency and the scariness of the creature. I think it’s a very childish conceit, this creature with eyes in the hands.”
Watching the film, the brain goes “Goya!” but in the context of the scene, it surpasses quotation. “It doesn’t get in the way, no. The movie is full of quotations. For example, many fairytales: It quotes Hans Christian Andersen, it quotes ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ it quotes ‘The Red Shoes,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ many, many, many fairytales. And even Charles Dickens is quoted in the movie. When she first meets the stepfather, and he says, ‘It’s the other hand, Ofelia,’ that is straight out of, I think, chapter three in ‘David Copperfield,’ when he meets his stepfather for the first time, he says, ‘It’s the other hand, David.’ Y’know, this is not for an audience to notice. This is, in the same way that I feel when I do a comic-book movie, like ‘Hellboy,’ I’m trying to quote all the comic-book guys that I like, Jack Kirby, Richard Corbin, Bernie Rietsin, all these guys are quoted in the movie, but they’re not direct quotes. It’s what I call ‘oblique quotes.’ If you wanna see it, it’s there. It’s unabashedly a quote, like the dress of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ It’s designed to be a quote on Alice. It’s not by accident but there’s a level that makes it feel like an older, almost timeworn, time-honored ancestral fairytale. If you quote all these sources, it has a feel of classicism.
“I think that quotes function in two different ways: There are some quotes [that filmmakers put in movies] that are there to be sort of postmodern and feel culty. Those types of quotes, I never connect with. But there are other quotes that come from the compulsion of making stuff you love your own. Those I can dig. I think that a guy who is often misunderstood is Tarantino. Especially for me, ‘Jackie Brown,’ is so beautiful, the quote of so many movies, but it’s his own creature. ‘Matrix’ was like that too, it combines comic books, anime, Philip K. Dick, it combines all of these things but it creates its own creature.”