— by Shawn Adler
NEW YORK — Once upon a time in a land far, far away (all good stories start that way) there was ... the fairy tale.
Robust, relevant, sometimes very violent, but mostly always adult, the fairy tale survived almost unchanged for over two millennia — from oral folk tales to the Brothers Grimm. And then came the darkness, and the name of that darkness was childhood.
"I believe the fairy tale, the magical story, originated around the fire, centuries and centuries ago, and was sort of a parable for the adults as much as for the children," Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro explained. "[But modern] fairy tales have been cleaned up and sanitized so much that [their] only purpose is to entertain children."
Del Toro is among a new breed of reactionary directors — including Tom Tykwer ("Perfume"), Darren Aronofsky ("The Fountain") and Terry Gilliam ("Tideland") — attempting to bring the fairy tale back to its adult roots. "When you say fairy tale, people imagine Snow White singing to a little bluebird with chipmunks dancing all around her — but it isn't," del Toro said. "They are parables about what it means to be human, about what it means to be here now."
The transformation of the modern fairy tale is a Cinderella story all the more remarkable because it actually concerns Cinderella — you know, the version where the stepsisters cut off their toes and mutilate their feet to fit into the Prince's slipper.
"All fairy tales were originally pretty violent. They were set against tragedies and horrible times," del Toro said. "Most of the great fairy tales that we know take place in times of famine, plague [or] war and are full of incredibly brutal stuff — for instance incest, cannibalism and mutilation."
That's incest ("Donkeyskin"), cannibalism ("Sleeping Beauty") and mutilation ("Cinderella") — originals that are far cries from the Disney-fication of the genre that has predominated in the last century.
"On one level there's something childlike and simple and magical about [fairy tales]," "Perfume" actor Ben Whishaw contended. "On another level, they have some kind of message or resonance that's adult and profound. [The trick is getting] that combination or ambiguity."
Del Toro's new film, "Pan's Labyrinth," takes that ambiguity and further ratchets up the intensity, situating the action in near-contemporary post-war Spain, where the dreamy Ofelia, an 11-year-old under the domineering hand of her fascist stepfather, must find solace in a magical garden labyrinth full of fantastical but menacing creatures (see "Scariest Film Of The Year? 'Pan's Labyrinth' Director Spills His Guts"). It's enchanting, haunting and very, very gruesome.
"I think this fairy tale needed the violence because it's about brutality and innocence, war and imagination," del Toro said, defending the gory scenes in his film. "If you don't depict the [world] in an untypical way — very brutal, very strong — it loses the ancient contrast that lays the essence of the story and the movie."
Fairy tales have long been mined for their purported significance, whether mythical, Jungian or Freudian. Del Toro said it's actually much simpler than that. "I think we live in a world now that takes a lot of skepticism to any movies with big ideas. One of the ways to reach the feeling of emotions is the fable," the "Hellboy" director insisted. "It's a way to connect and talk about big issues without having to be pompous, self-important [or] incredibly solemn."
Those big issues include the nature of good and evil, the role of destiny, and the limitless power of possibility. For people who grew up on the familiar fairytale motif of the damsel in distress, however, del Toro thinks the biggest lesson of all in "Pan's Labyrinth" may be the magic of the individual.
"In 'Pan's Labyrinth,' the biggest hero is an 11-year-old. I think that's what audiences need to learn — that you don't need to be strong and powerful and in a good position to be a hero," del Toro said. "There is always a moment in which we all become heroes or cowards. Every day, every week, every month we have that chance."
The adult fairy tale, then, teaches audiences to be proactive — to not wait for Prince Charming or the fairy godmother. It's the hero of a thousand faces — and all of them are our own.
And we all lived happily ever after.