Literally and figuratively marvelous, a rich, daring mix of fantasy and politics, Pan's Labyrinth begins with a "once upon a time" and then becomes utterly specific. Spain 1944: The civil war is over, and Franco's Falangists have long since subjugated the country. The last remnants of Republican resistance are fighting a rearguard action in the forested northern hills. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her ailing, pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) have been relocated there, to a remote military base commanded by her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a cold and brutal autocrat.
Pan's Labyrinth itself may be too cruel and bloody for children, although kids would surely appreciate its exquisite yuckiness. But this R-rated poetic fable is nonetheless set in a child's archaic reality, a magic world of ancient ruins and "fairy" insects. A persistent dragonfly guides Ofelia from her bedroom to the center of an overgrown garden maze. There in the darkness, she encounters the horned and wall-eyed faun. This mossy, capricious creature is an altogether different type from the gentle little Narnian faun who befriends the young heroine in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -- a movie that del Toro turned down.
The faun persuades Ofelia that she is an orphaned princess and assigns the gravely self-contained child a series of magical tasks; her adventures in the underworld are then intercut with the guerrilla war in the woods. Del Toro has an unusual capacity to keep the narrative moving on two levels. Secrets abound. Everyone has a mission. The commander's housekeeper, formidable, fearless Mercedes (the movie's secret star, Maribel Verd¦, best known as the older woman in del Toro's Y Tu Mamá También), is aiding the insurgents -- as is the local doctor. From Ofelia's perspective, there are all sorts of monsters, human and otherwise. The latter range from the living mandrake root the child uses to forestall her mother's miscarriage, to the blind, devouring Pale Man (played, like the faun, by the protean Doug Jones). The human monster is, of course, the faun's counterpart: the murderous Vidal.
Magic realism leavened with moral seriousness, Pan's Labyrinth belongs with a handful of classic movie fantasies: Cocteau's Orphée, Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves. Its key precursor, however, may be the greatest of Franco-era Spanish movies, Víctor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive. Although utterly different types of filmmaking, each of these is the story of a brave little girl lost in a world of make-believe -- at once an intuitive antifascist and the innocent victim of a monstrous system.