Fairytales often default to the simple story archtype of good vanquishing bad: heroes prevail over their villainous counterparts, violence seldom achieves goals, and classic happy endings accompanied by subtle moral messages are always presented as the story closes. When a character with less than desirable traits enters the story, the balance between good and evil is threatened for the hero now faces the daunting task of overcoming a powerful, domineering obstacle that must be defeated in order to restore the status quo.
Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is no exception to this archetypical casting and uses the motif of nature to juxtapose the harsh reality within the peace of the imaginary world the innocent protagonist, Ofelia, creates. Said contrast creates a way for her to travel to the safety of a world where innocence and goodness prevail over dominance and greed. The health of the plants and insects around Ofelia falls and rises with the film's action: her initial loneliness, choice to fight the darkness in her life, the final result of said actions, and the methods she uses to distract herself from the harsher realities of growing up are all mirrored in nature throughout the film.
Nature is used to develop setting and convey Ofelia's loneliness in her surroundings. When Ofelia tells her pregnant mother, Carmen, the story of a rose trapped on the mountain, it is more than a simple fairytale. The solitary rose represents promise, potential, and goodness whereas the treacherous mountains surrounding it symbolize darkness, negativity, and evil. This comparison of good versus evil aligns with Ofelia's views of how she fits into the world. Her loneliness and innocence are represented by that of the flower's while the villainous landscape it resides on is a metaphor for her step-father, Vidal, and his cruel, vicious nature. The visual metaphor of the flower expresses Ofelia's inability to escape the darkness surrounding her. The good versus evil theme of Ofelia's story also mirrors the continuous comparison between reality and fantasy seen throughout the film; reality being sinister and cruel and Ofelia's fantasies being good and pure. Ofelia is told her overactive imagination is harmful and dangerous, much like the rose and its potential to kill anyone who touches it. In both Ofelia's story and the reality it reflects, only the negative aspects are addressed; no one ever explains the value of imagination and creativity to Ofelia much like no one discusses the rose's ability to grant eternal life. As the rose wilts so does Ofelia as her persistent loneliness and fading innocence become prominent as her journey progresses.
Every time nature is presented in the film, it indicates a significant event is happening in the story structure, allowing the audience to form a connection between the natural elements of Pan's Labyrinth and the emotional journey of Ofelia. On the faun's orders, Ofelia forces herself to venture deep into an aging tree to destroy the giant toad that lives inside of it, sucking away the tree's life. Playful medium closeups of Ofelia and extreme closeups of the bugs, mud, and frog in the tree are used to explore the magical world she has entered and connect the audience with the wonderment she experiences. The audio of Ofelia's first task also aids this connection for everything from the crawling bugs to Ofelia's breath is amplified far beyond normal levels, distancing the audience from reality as they enter the fantasy world. When Ofelia enters the tree to fight the toad, it is more than an imaginary battle – she is simultaneously making an effort to fight Vidal and regain the stability her life had prior to moving to the military camp. The decaying tree symbolizes Ofelia's family tree and once she kills the frog, she feels a sense of accomplishment because she is not only able to complete the task but also because she has taken a step towards defying Vidal. This attitude is further exemplified when she shows up late to an important dinner and when she places the mandrake root under Carmen's bed despite the fact that she knows Vidal will not approve. Although the tasks do not alter the status quo, they lead Ofelia to believe that since she was able to overcome her problems in her imagined world she should be able to accomplish her goals in real life as well. The metaphor of the tree and the frog shows how Ofelia uses escapism as a means of coping with her troubles, solidifying the connection between nature and the world Ofelia has created.
The bugs that transform into fairies are another example of how nature is used to help the audience's understanding of the parallels between Ofelia's life and the imaginary land she creates. Once Ofelia enters the labyrinth, the audio comes alive as the audience is introduced to the whizzing wings and chirping dialogue of the fairies, the creaking movements of the fawn, and the ominous echoes of the labyrinth. The camera also becomes more active as it features a variety of shots – everything from wide shots to close-ups are used to create a playful atmosphere. The fairies lead Ofelia to the labyrinth several times, clearly establishing themselves as a link between reality and fantasy for every time they appear, Ofelia is pulled away from her current problems and is led to a world where obstacles are easily overcome. As Ofelia interacts with her magical friends, the world becomes hopeful and promising as her brother's arrival date approaches and disobeying her step-father becomes easier. After the fairies die during the second task, Ofelia is cut off from her magical kingdom and her world begins to fall apart as her mother dies and Vidal's power grows. She finds that without the fairies' guidance and protection, she is unable to conquer her problems as easily as she did in her fairy-tale world. Once the fairies reappear and the faun gives Ofelia her final task, her connection to the magical world is re-established and her ability to fight returns, seen after she bravely drugs Vidal's drink and steals her newborn brother away from him. It is clear that Ofelia is only able to achieve her goals when she is able to connect to her magical world. Whether or not the bugs have actually turned into fairies or are simply projections of the young girl's mind is irrelevant for they serve their purpose of mirroring the environment around Ofelia and connecting reality with imagination, fuelling her ambition.
As the story closes, nature is used yet again to symbolize Ofelia's position in the world and her attempts to fight the darkness in her life. A gentle hum of the subtle yet dramatic score from the beginning of the film aids Ofelia's transition from life to death as an extreme close-up shot reveals a single white flower growing on the branch of the tree from the first task. This flower is the last connection Ofelia has to the living world and serves to remind others of her goodness and purity. Ofelia's flower and the rose from her story at the beginning of the film bear a resemblance, both plants symbolizing beauty and goodness amid a world of darkness. This flower also grows on the tree that represented Ofelia's family tree, showing how her innocence and sacrifice is what allowed her brother, the only remaining family she has, to move forward in a world where his innocence will be more appreciated. The viewer is left with a lasting impression of the importance of imagination and hope amongst sober reality and despair; a message poignantly conveyed in the final shot of the film.
Pan's Labyrinth combines worlds of harsh reality and a creative fantasy to address the classic issue of good versus evil in a visually appealing way. In the fantasy land, goodness prevails as Ofelia is able to accomplish her tasks and reach her goals whereas, in reality, the true winner of the battle is unclear for those who are purely innocent or truly evil end up dying by one another's hand. Nature's presence in the film rises and falls with Ofelia's success and follows her journey from start to finish. Ofelia's journey from a timid girl afraid of her world to a young woman who is confident with herself and her aspirations is replicated in the nature motif. Insects and plants are used to present Ofelia's escapist methods and juxtapose her murky reality with her ideal utopian paradise.