Labyrinths Beat Bridges Every Time

Have meant to blog about Pan’s Labyrinth for some time, but haven’t gotten to it. Life has kept me away from the blog too long. Have been doing lots of theater (just finished Chekov’s “The Bear” and now am cast as Lois/Bianca in Kiss Me Kate). And work has been hectic, with me having to chair our biennial Women’s Studies Conference. But why blog about that when I can blog about Pan’s Labyrinth and Bridge to Terabithia!

Pan’s Labyrinth
is a rich yet broadly scripted film that I did very much enjoy. My enjoyment was qualified by what I considered a very unnecessary amount and type of violence plastered all over the screen in places. We know the commander is an evil bastard from the moment we meet him (or before, when the young female protagonist is told to call him Father and doesn’t want to). But when he crushes her hand upon meeting her, we know he’s a sadist with no conscience and, for this Grimm’s fairytale-like narrative, enough. But no, we get gratuitous (imo) scenes like him punching a man in the face until he’s dead (I turned away, perhaps he punched him elsewhere or did other things, but I couldn’t look and plugged my ears, too). Other scenes were arguably more necessary in their violence, like when he stitches up the gash in his mouth and it has psychoanalytic vaginal overtones. But mostly I think the graphic violence was about director del Toro having been the director of flicks like Mimic and Hellboy.

The plot was arguably also not particularly original: the little girl who escapes the bad world around her through fantasy tainted by that world. There’s no escape is the message. And she dies as a martyr, also wringing the tears from us and evoking Jesus and not wildly original.

The fantasy world and its creatures were damned creepy and intense, though. One monster that eats little children (we see the carnage in Goya-like paintings and in a pile of children’s shoes that is directly evocative of the Holocaust – as are other elements as this is fascist Spain). I think of it as the miscarriage monster and it’s gorgeously hideous and a Freudian field day to analyze.

I also adored the use of sound in the film. Creaking leather was big throughout, as were the creaking building, beds, creatures, and humans. I’d need to see the film again to analyze that element further, but it definitely caught my ear.

By contrast, I have far less of interest to say about Bridge to Terabithia, which used some similar images: fantasy as escape for kids and marred by real life ugliness; martyred little girl. I think my very negative response to the film comes at least in part by how wrongly it was advertised. There’s precious little actual fantasy in the film and the ads make it look like a lovely little escape. I’d never have taken my son to Pan’s Labyrinth because I knew it was adult content with a child actor; I wouldn’t have taken him to Bridge to Terabithia either, if the ads had represented the content accurately.

As another reviewer my husband read (sorry, no citation at the moment) said: the film cannot bridge the gap between the touching fantasy escapism and the grim reality of killing off the seventh grade girl. She is the heart and soul of the film, the savior and martyr, the delight from beginning to end with her individualism and her pain, her enthusiasm and her art.

The plot is contrived, beginning to end. The boy who is ignored by the impoverished and too-full family, desperate for Daddy’s love but Daddy gives it only to his baby girl: not original. Suffering bullies at school, having a crush on a teacher: blah blah blah. And then here is that teacher. Totally hot hippy music teacher (who’d have been fired for singing hippy songs at my son’s school) suddenly gets the brilliant idea to pick up and take ONE YOUNG BOY to the museum ALONE. Can you say Statutory Rape Charges? It’s all “necessary” to show the boy be selfish for one stupid moment so the glorious girl can have an accident when alone and he can feel guilty the rest of his life. Or at least until he reconciles everything by donating his fantasy world to his undeserving little sister. What an ending. Dreadful.

In the end, both films left me conflicted. But Pan’s Labyrinth is ultimately a powerful and compelling film with evocative and rich imagery – a compelling filmic experience. Bridge to Terabithia, by contrast, is an unworthy mess.