Once Upon a Time: Pan’s Labyrinth as a Fairytale

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Pan’s Labyrinth is one of Guillermo del Toro’s masterpieces. This contentious film juxtaposes the colorful world of fantasy and the harsh world of reality that is set in the aftermath of the Spanish civil war. Upon watching the film, viewers would argue whether the film could be considered as a fairytale or not because of its morbid and violent nature. This paper aims to prove that Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed a fairytale by using significant symbolism and references from other fairy tales as evidence.

Let us start with probably the most superficial one, it is the consistent use of the number three in the film - there are three fairies who were guiding Ofelia in her journey, the Pale man’s chamber had three rooms, there were three main female characters, there were also three monsters present in the film (the huge toad, the Pale Man, and Captain Vidal), but most importantly, there are three challenges that Ofelia must accomplish to be able to return to the underworld. These are just some of the many instances where the rule was utilized. The rule of three is one of the conventions used in writing a fairytale and has been used since the old times - there are the three little pigs, the three musketeers, her wicked stepmother giving Snow White three visits. In his book “Morphology of the Folk Tale”, Vladimir Propp stated that fairy tales would usually repeat certain elements three times. This is to make sure that the readers would be satisfied with a just ending. If the character achieves his or her purpose in the story in just one try, readers may not be as absorbed in the story as they are if their purpose is achieved for the third time. This may be the reason why three is considered a perfect number in literature.

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With that, let us now go deeper into the evidence. At a certain point in the movie where Ofelia was approaching the fig tree while holding a storybook, she was wearing a familiar pinafore dress in green. This is believed to be an homage to Alice’s dress in the fairy tale “Alice in Wonderland”. An essential detail that viewers may miss if they are not observant enough. Though Alice’s adventures in her own story may be different from Ofelia’s, the two share some similarities. In one of the first few scenes in the movie, Ofelia was lead by a stick insect to what seems to be a large and old stone labyrinth but was prevented by Mercedes to enter, though later that night, the insect returns to lead Ofelia again to the labyrinth where she meets the Faun. A similar thing happened to Alice when she pursued a clothed white rabbit with a pocket watch and eventually lead her down a rabbit hole where her adventure begins. These two resembling scenes signifies the start of the two characters’ journey into their respective worlds of fantasy. In the movie adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (2010), Alice was faced with the proposal of an unwanted marriage and the absurd standards of society. We may compare this to Ofelia’s situation where she is placed in a war-ridden place with her fascist stepfather who was the captain of the Spanish army. The two girls, who were both too young to face such conditions, were pulled into a world of fantasy with peculiar creatures to carry out certain tasks that would eventually give them a sense of liberation.

Another literary reference from the movie is the scene that shows Captain Vidal performing a surgery on himself. In the movie, one could notice that Vidal used the same mirror and the same blade he was using while he was shaving earlier in the movie. As del Toro stated in the DVD commentary of the film, the scene resembles the prominent magic mirror scenes in Snow White where the evil stepmother would ask the mirror “Who’s the fairest of them all?”. The mirror showed him before as someone ‘beautiful’ (physically) but has now shown him how ugly and monstrous he can be (both externally and internally). Del Toro also hinted, “I thought it would be very nice for this mirror to tell him, You’re not the fairest of them all anymore.” This is a clear comparison of Vidal and Snow White’s evil stepmother, who are both very displeased with their stepdaughters and tried to kill them (and succeeded). This scene also showed a great resemblance to “Little Red Riding Hood” where the big bad wolf gobbled up the girl after it ate her grandmother, only to sleep afterward. Thankfully, a hunter came to the rescue and cut the wolf open freeing Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. This could be associated with how Ofelia wanted to break free from her stepfather’s violent and fascist hands, not even wanting to address him as her father. Ofelia’s mother, Carmen, could also be compared to the grandmother in the fairytale for she was helplessly devoured by Captain Vidal, this was evident in the scene where he gave a command to Dr. Ferreiro saying that if he had to choose between saving Carmen and the baby, he must choose the child. Mercedes also resembles the hunter who saved the girl and her grandmother in the fairytale. She served as Ofelia’s sanctuary from the harsh reality she’s in and (literally) cut Vidal like the hunter in Little Red Riding Hood, eventually killing the antagonist in the story.

The last reference is from the last scene where a shot of Ofelia wearing her ruby-red shoes was shown. This is a mirror to the famous scene from “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy knocks her ruby-red shoes three times taking her back home. In the movie, when Ofelia was seen wearing the shoes she was at the underworld, it was like it was saying that she is finally home. At the beginning of the movie, a story was told about Princess Moanna who was believed by her father to return home anytime. Ofelia was introduced as Princess Moanna’s reincarnation and after succeeding with the three challenges given to her, Ofelia returned home, to the underworld where her real father and mother can be seen, a place where she truly belongs.

All these references (and more) are proof that Pan’s Labyrinth is indeed a fairytale, not just because of its magical creatures, its kind heroine, its conformity to some fairytale conventions, and its similarity to other fairy tales; but also because of the powerful message it wishes to give to its viewers. One of the things I liked the most about this movie, is its multifaceted nature. The meaning of the film may completely change from one viewer to another and its message may also be interpreted in a million other ways. But I think the viewers could settle with one message that the film aims to tell us, it is that the world of fantasy is just as real and as dangerous as the real world. Throughout the movie, Ofelia’s life was put into danger multiple times, not just in the real world but also in the world of fantasy. Staying too much in our world of fantasy may be fatal especially because we are being blinded from seeing the real things happening around us until it eventually consumes us unknowingly. These aspects prove that it is a fairytale, though not a typical one, del Toro has said in an interview that the film is an adult fairytale, but I think the term “realistic fairytale” would fit it better. Yes, these words are highly contrasting, but I think it would describe the film best when we combine them for it would show del Toro’s magnificent work on mushing the two worlds together to create this masterpiece. Del Toro wanted to show magic and truthfulness at the same time to create this realistic fairytale that would teach us lessons in a different and more rational way. I highly recommend this film to others especially for those who want to see a different approach to the common fairy tales we used to watch, and I suggest that you re-watch the film again if you have because it is just truly magical yet beautifully peculiar.

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