Leave the kids at home -- please leave the kids at home, unless you want to inflict some emotional damage on them -- and enjoy this rarity: Though it's seen through the eyes of a child, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is very much a fairy tale for an adult audience.
There have been other fantastical films that look like they might be meant for young viewers, but most assuredly aren't -- The Company of Wolves, MirrorMask, and the Jean Cocteau Beauty and the Beast come to mind. But none of those has approached the complexity and the combination of exquisite beauty, harrowing fear and ever-present threat toward innocence that del Toro achieves in this one.
He's a director with an extraordinary resume already under his belt, including Cronos, about the search for eternal life; Mimic, a horror tale about deadly (and huge) cockroaches; Hellboy, a grim science-fiction film wrapped in a gleefully offbeat superhero story; and The Devil's Backbone, a sort of companion piece to Pan's Labyrinth, about a young boy in an isolated setting in civil war-ravaged Spain.
This time it's a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquera) in 1944 Spain; resistance fighters are still battling Franco's government. Ofelia is forced to move with her mother to the headquarters, deep in the woods, of mom's new husband, an army captain who's determined to wipe out the remnants of the resistance.
Even before it's revealed that Ofelia desperately wants to believe in fairy tales, and before her very pregnant mom (Adriana Gil) has made it clear that she thinks fairy tales are nonsense, viewers are told of an "underground realm" where long ago a princess escaped but died, and where her father still waits for "the return of her soul."
Roaming through the woods around her new home, the curious, fearless Ofelia accidentally unleashes... something. Something mantis-like in appearance. It begins to watch her from afar and later makes itself known to her. "Are you a fairy?" she asks during a late-night visit. Before you can say "Tinkerbell," the creature has, indeed, transformed into a fairy. Then it leads the girl to a deep underground cavern where she meets Pan, a gnarly horned and hooved creature who seems to like the sound of his own voice.
Is this real? Is it her imagination? Whatever the truth, Ofelia can't discuss it with anyone. Mom won't hear of it, and the quiet, strong, demanding and -- it's revealed -- cruel captain (Sergi Lopez, in an Oscar-worthy supporting performance) is someone she regularly wishes were elsewhere. Ofelia's only confidante is the captain's housekeeper, the sad-looking Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) -- who, it turns out, has secrets of her own.
The story spreads out into many levels: Pan's directive that Ofelia carry out three magical tasks, the captain's disregard for the welfare of anyone but the child of his pregnant wife, the rebel forces who are as determined as the captain to wipe out their enemies, and more.
The film is burgeoning with startling imagery and fabulous set design both above and below the ground, and it's gorgeously photographed, from men on horseback thundering through lush woods to explorations of dark, creepy caves. The creatures range from cute little fairies to the kind of gruesome creations that probably haunt disturbed minds.
Much of what Ofelia goes through in the strange, fantastical worlds she visits is unsettling. There can be bugs and mud and general ickiness at one moment, and then a hideous, lurching thing coming after her in another. The captain may be the film's metaphorical monster, but there are also real ones.
It's hard to say which is scarier. The captain, both brave and brutal on the battlefield, is quicker than Jack Bauer to inflict torture on someone who opposes him. Thankfully, most of his bloody work is done off-camera. But -- fair warning -- one sequence has him stitching up his own disfigured face. It's done front and center, and isn't for the squeamish.
As bizarre as Pan's Labyrinth is, del Toro saves some of its oddest plot turns for the end, which involves death and rebirth and myriad other strangeness. Again, this is not for kids. But with its Spanish dialogue, violent political backdrop and disturbing situations, it's also not just a fairy tale for adults. It's a fairy tale for our troubled times.
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Ivana Baquera, Adriana Gil, Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu