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 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, Vidal (Sergi López), a cold, brutal autocrat.
Pan's Labyrinth itself may be too cruel and bloody for children, though kids would surely appreciate its exquisite yuckiness. (Del Toro can be as textural as David Cronenberg.) 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 (perhaps the manifestation of her own incipient madness) guides Ofelia from her bedroom to the center of an overgrown garden maze. There, in the darkness, she encounters a horned and wall-eyed faun. This mossy, capricious creature is altogether different from the gentle Narnian faun who befriends the young heroine in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a movie that del Toro turned down, apparently on religious grounds. (He told Sight and Sound that he "wasn't interested in the lion resurrecting.")
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. Secrets abound. Everyone has a mission. The commander's housekeeper, formidable, fearless Mercedes (the movie's secret star, Maribel Verdú, the older woman in 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.
Del Toro mixed the political and the supernatural in The Devil's Backbone, a discomfiting, ambitious mix of gothic thriller, boy's adventure story, and political allegory. Pan's Labyrinth, by contrast, is not just strongly imagined but superbly integrated and fluid, its magical realism leavened with moral seriousness. It 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, each 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.