The promotional material I’d seen for the film all emphasised the fantasy aspect of the film. Due to that, and the title I turned it on expecting to watch something like ‘Labyrinth’. But instead of David Bowie in tight pants dancing with a load of Muppets, it was an intensely dark story about the essential hope represented in stories themselves.
The theme that was most prevalent was something the mother said: “The world is a cruel place.” That’s what really emphasised itself; darkness, war, tragedy, death, and the general injustice of the world. Set during General Franco’s regime in 1940s Spain, it pulls no punches in representing things pessimistically. I expected a cautionary but principally optimistic story about hope even in dark times like the moral of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, etc etc. I also expected this fairly early on in the film when another theme similar to LOTR crept in; the contrast between nature and technology. Instead there was just darkness with fairy tales playing the role of pure escapism. Ofelia told a story near the beginning about a rose at the top of a black mountain of thorns. That was how hope and light was represented in the film; a distant unreachable goal but that should never let one stop from trying to reach it.
Another theme was obedience and blindly following the bane of the existentialist’s existence, custom. The film shows punishment for obeying/acting without thinking and reward for considering the consequences and refusing to act. This is all the more potent surrounded by the atrocities of soldiers in 1940s Europe where ‘only obeying orders’ brought up calamity on a horrendous scale. The horrors and disconnectedness from thought of custom is starkly shown and makes a reminder that one should always follow either one’s own conclusions; whether they be born of reason or intuition. Thinking or feeling for yourself is always better than doing neither which is something the doctor in the film expressed better than that.