Ever since the departure of ShortMaster Phong, we’ve been pretty much scrambling and scratching to find shorts, but Jackie may have found us a new font of pre-movie goodness in Short of the Week. She started us out with a relatively random selection, chosen for being “fantasy” and “spanish” – a little film called Birdboy.
It’s not exactly a film that screams out “I’m approachable!” There are cartoon mice and rabbits and birdboys (who can’t fly and are the target of schoolmouse mockery). Then there are inexplicable orphanogenetic nuclear disasters and more inexplicable masks and some sort of emotional rescue of orphan mouse girl by now-flying birdboy. I didn’t get it.
Pan’s Labyrinth (director Guillermo del Toro‘s tour de force), on the other hand, at least had a coherent plot. I’ll quibble a bit about how successful the integration of the fantasy and reality elements was, but the whole thing made sense.
The reality element of the film is staged in early Franco-era Spain, where a cruel and ruthless army captain is stationed in a forest, rooting out the anti-Franco rebels. He brings his new, pregnant wife and his stepdaughter Ofelia (whose father died in the Spanish Civil War) out to his manor in the woods, where two of his staff, the doctor and household servant Mercedes, are secretly in league with the rebels.
The fantasy element wraps the whole thing in a story about Moanna, Princess of the Underworld, who adventurously left her kingdom and died in the surface world. Her father the King is convinced that she will be reborn and has established a series of labyrinths around the world in the hopes that she will find her way back.
Ofelia is an imaginative girl who reads a lot of fantasy, so when she finds a praying mantis out in the woods, she decides that it’s a fairy. Naturally. But, to be fair, it does kind of follow her around and makes kind of intelligent-sounding clicking noises and eventually leads her to an abandoned labyrinth.
And in this labyrinth she discovers a stairway down to a lair where lurks…a faun.
Not Pan. Del Toro has been quite emphatic about the fact that this mythical faun is not to be equated with the Pan of Greek mythology. Sometimes a faun is just a faun, but translators can take some liberties, apparently.
So the faun tells Ofelia that he’s certain she’s the Princess Moanna, which is a nice change for a girl trapped out in the forest with a bedridden mother and a murderous stepfather who insists she call him “daddy”. Oh, you’re a princess and your real daddy lives in the Kingdom of the Fairies! It’s like the Nigerian bank account scam of the pre-internet world.
To be fair, though his diagnosis of her princesshood may have been a little bit quick, the faun does set her three fairly arbitrary challenges to prove that she is who he says she is. The first one goes fairly well, where she has to go into the trunk of a dying tree and feed a giant toad some magic rocks to force it spit up a key. It sounds kind of silly, but there are some ugly-ass bugs that she has to crawl through and she pretty much ruins her only nice dress, so, you know, Drama At Home!
The second quest doesn’t quite go so well. Ofelia has to draw a door in her wall with a magic piece of chalk, then go into the realm of a creepy, sleeping monster to use the key to fetch a ceremonial dagger. Of course, the rule is that she’s not allowed to eat anything at this feast which is sitting in front of the sleeping monster. The rule has been made quite explicit. But Ofelia, like Persephone (and Pan or no Pan, del Toro can’t weasel out of the Greek Mythology connections on this one), can’t help herself. She wakes the monster.
In the process of protecting her as she escapes, a bunch of fairies get eaten by the monster, and when the faun learns of Ofelia’s disobedience he petulantly insists that she’s NOT the Princess Moanna, which is quite a blow to a little girl who has little else to live for. At the same time, things start to come to a head in the real world.
Mercedes and the doctor have been visiting the rebels in the forest, bringing them antibiotics and food, but the capture of a stutterer after a battle with the rebels leads to the climax of the reality plot. After some pretty heavy torture, the captain asks the doctor to revive the prisoner for another round, but the doctor disobeys, euthanizing his rebel acquaintance instead. So the captain kills the doctor, his wife dies bearing him a son, and he finally discovers evidence that Mercedes is a spy.
The captain takes Mercedes to the torture chamber/larder/barn/whatever it is, but because she’s only a woman he doesn’t take her quite seriously enough. So she uses her hidden knife (established) to cut through her bonds and stab him a couple of times, then gives him half-a-joker before trying to escape. Umm, hint? When you’ve got the ultra-bad-guy killer in your power because you’ve stabbed him and he’s wounded, FINISH HIM! Duh. Effing seriously. I mean how could things possibly go better if you let him live? Whatever. She ends up living.
Meanwhile, the faun has decided to give Ofelia one last chance to prove herself. Her job is to steal her baby brother and bring him to the labyrinth. So she half-drugs the captain and makes off with the baby with a woozy and angry stepfather in pursuit. But when she gets to the labyrinth, the faun tells her that she must spill the blood of an innocent – her brother – to enter the kingdom of the underworld and become a princess again. Hey, remember this dagger you brought me?
And she gets shot to death by the captain. Spilling her own innocent blood (instead of her brother’s) and passing the test. In the end, the captain is killed by the rebels, Mercedes takes the baby to raise it into a life of hiding in the woods and taking potshots at the Franco regime, and Ofelia, the imaginative kid, dies.
Yep, just plain dies.
OK, so there’s a scene with Moanna in the underworld returning to her “real” family. And the queen is…her very own mother! Do you see the giveaway there? According to the mythology, her mother in the real world is just some human vessel.
So my only conclusion is that there was no fantasy world. No fairies. No faun. No passage at the end of the labyrinth. Just an imaginative girl who has died due to the depths of her imagination. Her fantasy told her to steal her little brother. Had she not? Well, the rebels were going to capture the captain that night anyway, and she could have lived with her new foster mother Mercedes. But no.
I said I was going to quibble with the integration of the fantasy and reality worlds, and that’s my quibble. Your typical fantasy/reality mashup either clearly establishes the existence of the fantasy realm, or, if it leaves it in doubt at least makes the interaction with the maybe-fantasy realm something of benefit for the protagonist. Here you’ve got a fantasy realm which if anything appears through small clues to NOT exist and belief in which brings about the demise on the protagonist. It’s kind of depressing when you look at it that way.
But hey, it’s a good movie. No quibbles there. It’s just a totally fake happy ending and it kind of bums me out.