Keep your fantasies alive: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Neverending Story, and why you should dance at weddings

I was sitting around reading James Victore‘s wonderful reminder to get to work, Feck Perfuction, when something sounded familiar.

Weddings are a test, not only for the bride and groom but also for everyone else. At some point, the music builds and there’s a cue: “Everybody dance now!”
But not everyone dances … cuz it’s a test. It’s a test of how comfortable you are in your skin. Check my wedding math: If half of the guests get up and dance, more than half of those are mummies. Their bodies are stuck in a fixed, dancelike position, encased by the fear that moving will expose the dancing fool trapped inside.
Everybody can dance. To hell with the music; just let go and move.
What stops you is your ego. It doesn’t want you to look bad or funny or goofy. Dancing is goofy.

A couple of years ago I was at a wedding, and I was having my usual way-too-confident fun on the dance floor and he asked me how we learn to dance.

“We’re born with them,” I said, “and we have to learn how to un-forget them.”
As we get older, we start to gain more of a sense of shame. And by “get older,” I mean as we age out of toddlerhood. Because really, we start getting ridiculed for nonconformity pretty early in our school careers.
By the time we’re teenagers, many people are afraid to stand out, and when they do something to “stand out,” usually they do it in groups.

When it came out in 2006, “Pan’s Labyrinth” was on my list. I missed it. I knew nothing of art theaters where I was living. It passed me by for more than a decade, and then Netflix picked it up and I set aside a couple of hours to watch it.

I suppose that fits in with the film’s legacy. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro had given up on getting it funded. He’d been sketching it out for years and, after the 2004 version of “Hellboy” hit, people kept trying to get him to do superhero films.

He lost his sketches and notes in the back of a cab, but the cab driver managed to track del Toro down. He vowed to get the movie made. He took no salary and gave up his points — it was that important to him. He turned down the Narnia films to make it.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s a synopsis. Let’s assume spoilers are going to come. I don’t know; I haven’t written the next couple of paragraphs yet. Whatever. It’s a 13-year-old movie. Anyway.

There’s an underground world, ruled by a benevolent king. His daughter, the princess, is curious, though, and one day she escapes to the human world above, is blinded by the sun, becomes mortal and dies. The king vows to wait for her to return in another form at another time.

Meanwhile, in the world above, young Ofelia and her very pregnant mother are riding out to the country to stay with Ofelia’s stepfather, Gen. Vidal, who is stationed at this outpost to try to get rid of the last of the rebels holed up in the woods five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War.

Ofelia is bookish, and believes that on their journey she saw a fairy. It turns out, much like Tweety Birdy, she did! she did! saw a fairy. The fairy brings her through a labyrinth on the grounds of the general’s outpost and down into the underworld where a faun (not Pan — the translation of the title is misleading) gives her a book and some magic stones and says to prove she’s the princess she must complete three tasks.

Aside: A faun is a charming, lustful, half-man, half-goat who is nimble on his goat legs and loves wearing crowns of leaves and berries and not much else. Pan is so much the opposite of charming that the word panic derives from his name.

Here’s an interesting criticism on the film as a disobedient fairy tale (OK, I had a bit of a spoiler but you saw that one coming; there are definitely spoilers in this one).

The movie got me thinking about something I hadn’t thought about in a long time: our ability to enter fantasy land.

Even as adults, I think we have a pretty good ability to suspend disbelief in the face of fiction. No thinking grownup believes the bumbling drunk Captain Jack Sparrow is a mastermind genius, but the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are a lot of fun. And I’m pretty sure not even younger Star Wars fans buy that Storm Troopers are an inept army that can’t hit anyone with a laser gun at close range or that Darth Vader can asphyxiate people from a distance with an open gloved hand. But we enjoy the films for what they are.

But when do we lose the ability to totally immerse ourselves in a different world and actually believe it? One of the brilliant pieces of del Toro’s film is that part of it is firmly rooted in the reality of the post-Civil War fighting.

Ofelia is chided for her belief in fairy tales, but she feels no shame for it. That’s where our first lesson comes. The second lesson she teaches us is sometimes you have to break the rules. “Grownups” don’t always know what they’re talking about.

Much like some of us need to un-learn shame and let go on the dance floor, some of us also need to learn that “real life” isn’t the only reality sometimes.

Here’s the big spoiler on “Pan’s Labyrinth:” Ofelia is flawed. She makes mistakes is following the faun’s instructions. He tells her his world will be forgotten because she didn’t follow the rules. But it turns out she is the princess after she disobeys another of his instructions, and her stepfather kills her.

Toward the end of the film version “The Neverending Story,” our young warrior protagonist, Atreyu, is trying to figure out why The Nothing is destroying his homeland of Fantasia, when he runs into the wolf monster Gmork.

Gmork threatens to tear him apart, his final victim before The Nothing takes over. If Atreyu is so brave, Gmork challenges, why doesn’t he defeat The Nothing?

Atreyu: But I can’t get beyond the boundary of Fantasia.
Gmork: [Laughs]
Atreyu: What’s so funny about that?
Gmork: Fantasia has no boundaries.
Atreyu: That’s not true. You’re lying!
Gmork: Foolish boy. Don’t you know anything about Fantasia? It’s the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries.
Atreyu: But why is Fantasia dying, then?
Gmork: Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams, so The Nothing grows stronger
Atreyu: What is The Nothing?
Gmork: It’s the emptiness that’s left. It is like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.
Atreyu: But why?
Gmork: Because people who have no hope are easy to control, and whoever has the control has the power.

Keep your hopes. Keep your dreams. Let your fantasies thrive. Dance.


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