Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her very pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariana Gil) to their new home in the countryside. Civil War rages in Spain, so Ofelia's mother has decided to marry Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who will be able to protect them and care for them. Vidal is leading an assault against the revolutionaries and wants to protect his new wife, who is pregnant, but more importantly, his new son, who will carry on his name. Carmen is having a difficult pregnancy and her doctor confines her to her bed immediately upon arrival. Ofelia meets Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), the housekeeper, who watches the new family with interest. One day, Ofelia is playing outside when she comes across a strange bug, leading her to an overgrown hedge maze and a strange world where she meets Pan (Doug Jones), a sort of emissary for another world inhabited by fairies, fawns and other strange creatures. He sets Ofelia a challenge and if she successfully completes it, she will take her place alongside the king as his princess.
"Pan's Labyrinth" is a beautifully realized, very violent, sometimes scary, sometimes politically charged adult fairy tale. I can't say the word "adult" enough. If you take small children to see this, be prepared to pay for some therapy.
That said, "Pan's" is a strange and somewhat wonderful film.
Del Toro, who has had better success working in his native tongue ("The Devil's Backbone") but has also directed "Mimic", "Hellboy" and "Blade 2" in the United States, combines elements of fantasy, horror and fairy tales with actual historical events to create a lively, beautiful world. The elements and influences of historical events help to make the overall film more powerful; we have all seen films filled with wonderful CGI creations, but they don't seem real. In these cases, the filmmaker wants to show off their tools, everything they can imagine. But when they spend so much time on the effects, they have little time or talent to develop characters or narrative. Del Toro achieves this delicate balance by rooting the story in the real world.
Some of the characters or events may have been changed, or fictionalized, but the action is rooted in real history, grounding the fantasy elements in reality. Another factor helping all of these items blend together is the historical setting. Because the story is set over sixty years ago, during the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s, it also lends itself to a more fairy tale quality. Colors are a little more saturated, everything is a little old fashioned looking and it becomes more real. As we come to accept the environment, we become more willing to accept the creatures living in this world.
Del Toro waits for the story to get going before delving into this other fantasy world. And once he does, we have to specifically enter this world, meet these creatures along with Ofelia. She is our guide, our escort. Also, the film alternates between these two worlds, reminding us of Ofelia's real life circumstances. All of these choices help to make the film real.
"Pan's Labyrinth" is an adult fairy tale and you should pay special attention to the word "adult". If you take a child to this film expecting to see a live action version of "Alice in Wonderland" you should also arranged for some ongoing therapy. This is a beautiful film, but it is also a violent and bloody film. But in a way, this makes it all the more wonderful.
Ofelia has misgivings about going to live with her mother's new husband, Captain Vidal. And we quickly learn her initial feelings are justified. Vidal is a mean, cruel and sadistic man. Charged with squashing the revolutionaries, he will stop at nothing to accomplish this. If he catches one, he gets the information he needs and kills them. His men are instructed to be just as merciless.
This violence is mirrored in the fantasy world Ofelia enters. All of the best fantasy films and fairy tales use elements from the "real world" in the fantasy realm and "Pan's" follows this tradition. Not only is Ofelia's quest tied to her real world, but she encounters challenges and violence in this place she so desperately seeks for escape.
Ivana Baquero is very good as Ofelia, the young girl thrust into two new and very different worlds. Following in the footsteps of other good child actors, she brings an innocence to the role making the character all the more memorable. She seems vulnerable, but shows some strength as she begins to enter this other fantasy world. Like Cinderella, Wendy and other fairy tale heroines, Ofelia has both a natural curiosity and fearlessness that suits her well. Baquero shows how much Ofelia cares for her sick mother, how much she is willing to go through, and the various aspects of her character.
As mentioned, Captain Vidal is a mean, intense man and Sergi Lopez makes him even more memorable. The role is a bit stereotypical; a few too many explosive moments, but when Vidal is quiet, he is more effective and more menacing. There are scenes in which Sergi Lopez demonstrates both of Vidal's methods of intimidation; in some, the Captain merely speaks, saying things that turn his victim's hearts cold. These are by far the better, scarier moments. When he screams and shouts, he appears far too stereotypical and villainish.
Maribel Verdu plays Mercedes, the Captain's housekeeper. She stands by and watches as Vidal takes out his frustrations on her people, the local townspeople who are also revolutionaries, but she says nothing to protect her position. As soon as Ofelia and her mother arrive, she senses Ofelia may be something special and looks out for her, in a way, without jeopardizing her position. Soon, she can't stand it anymore and exacts her revenge on the sadistic Captain in a very memorable way.
"Pan's Labyrinth" is a real find and instantly brought to mind the same feeling I had after I discovered the work of Peter Jackson or Jean Pierre Jeunet. Their films are similar in tone, style and look. If there is a difference, it is that Del Toro's films are more violent. People will be harmed and some will die. But that doesn't detract from the beauty of the characters, story, events he depicts in this very special "Labyrinth".