4 stars (out of four)
"Pan's Labyrinth," Guillermo del Toro's horrific yet wonderful tale of a little girl's dream world during Spain's worst era of fascism, is a great cinematic fairy tale--a brilliant work of the imagination capable of truly seizing and igniting our fantasies.
Del Toro, a master of more conventional genre horror in his witty vampire film "Cronos" and the comic book epic "Hellboy," here transports us to an era of tyranny and bloodshed--rural 1944 Spain in the still violent aftermath of the 1936-39 Spanish civil war--and then carries us further, to the magical realm of fairies and fauns that seems to exist in the mind of a smart, spunky child, Ofelia (11-year-old Ivana Baquero).
Ofelia, a little girl of fathomless curiosity and resilience, becomes trapped in the world of Franco-era reality--of marauding guerillas and fascist soldiers--when her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), marries the brutal outpost commander, Capitan Vidal. As played by the extraordinary Spanish actor Sergi Lopez, Vidal is a blood-chilling movie villain, a portrait of true evil, ruling over a domain where anyone can be tortured or shot at a moment's notice. Against him, outmanned, are the guerillas and their sympathizers in Vidal's household, including the quiet housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu of "Y tu mama tambien") and the anguished Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo).
The cold-blooded Capitan has a courtly, considerate veneer with Ofelia and Carmen--who is pregnant with the child he insists must be a boy--and throughout, Ofelia is torn between the real world of fascism and her own lively imagination. Near the beginning, we see Carmen and Ofelia in an elegant limousine, being driven to Vidal's embattled outpost; after it stops briefly, Ofelia spots a crumbling statue and a buzzing dragonfly (a magnificent CGI creation that later turns into a shimmering fairy), the first harbingers of her private underworld.
That magical realm, which Ofelia enters later through a well-like labyrinth she discovers in a garden on Vidal's headquarters, is packed with wonders and terrors. In it are beasts who carry their eyes in their hands, huge toads with tongues like red pythons and Ofelia's guide, the capering faun Pan (Doug Jones), who informs her that she is a lost princess of this fairy realm and must accomplish three tasks to return to her rightful kingdom.
Del Toro frames "Pan's Labyrinth" as if it were a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with a "Once Upon a Time"-style narrator. The film then unwinds in flashback, switching back and forth between the apparent "fantasy" and the reality of 1944 Spain. Despite that story-hour narration, Del Toro implies that the fairy tale is Ofelia's bulwark against Vidal's real world. But, a true master of horror and fantasy, he presents Ofelia's underworld as if it were real too. (Maybe it is.)
In the end, "Pan" succeeds both as a spectacular special-effects fantasy and as a psychological drama, with superb actors. Lopez's Vidal, especially, is a chilling embodiment of both fascism and of relentless realism. In "With a Friend Like Harry " Lopez played the memorable obsessed psychopath Harry, who was a Hitchcockian terror. But Vidal would have dispatched Harry with a quick shot to the brain.
A remorseless murderer, Vidal is also a hardheaded pragmatist who despises fairy tales, is inwardly contemptuous of women and observes everyone with a cruel irony. Against Vidal, Carmen's vulnerable love is useless and the doctor's civilized liberalism is impotent. For Del Toro, only fantasy or revolution can defeat him.
"Pan's Labyrinth" is all the more affecting because Del Toro so effectively "places" the fantasy in real life, in a place and an era he also portrayed in his 2001 "The Devil's Backbone." Up to now, Del Toro--one of a brilliant trio of Mexican filmmaking comrades, along with Alfonso Cuaron (one of "Pan's" producers) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu--has mostly proven himself a first-rate horror craftsman, in the vein of his own favorite filmmakers, like George Romero, Mario Bava and James Whale. But "Pan's Labyrinth" proves him a real artist with a deep and harrowing vision of the world.
"Pan's Labyrinth," one of the year's great movies, is an incredible achievement that takes us to the roots of fantasy and horror. As we enter Ofelia's underworld/wonderland, we can become amazed and enthralled at both the terrors of the reality outside and the splendors of the imagination within.
Directed and written by Guillermo del Toro; photographed by Guillermo Navarro; edited by Bernat Vilaplana; production designed by Eugenio Caballero; music by Javier Navarrete; produced by Alvaro Augustin, Alfonso Cuaron, Bertha Navarro, Frida Torresblanco. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.) A Picturehouse release; opens Friday in Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, the AMC River East 21 and the Evanston 18. Running time: 1:52. MPAA rating: R (for graphic violence and some language).
Ofelia - Ivana Baquero
Vidal - Sergi Lopez
Mercedes - Maribel Verdu
Carmen - Ariadna Gil
Pan/Pale Man - Doug Jones
Dr. Ferreiro - Alex Angulo
King - Federico Luppi