A princess escaping an underground realm, a lost flower of eternal youth, a suspicious faun, and a sticky, belching frog that explosively leaves a viscous discharge are but a handful of the fancifully grim fairy-tale images in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. In his second film set in the years following the Spanish Civil War (the first being The Devil's Backbone), writer-director Del Toro turns the still-bloody post-war Spanish countryside into a Jungian playground. Like the Twilight Zone, it's also a crossroads between worlds: child and adult, innocence and evil, life and death.
The year is 1944, and twelve-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) isn't happy. Clinging to her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) and the books that fuel her fantasy life, Ofelia reluctantly moves to the country to live under the dark wing of the world's worst stepfather: fascist sadomasochist Capitán Vidal (Sergi López, impeccably evil). Near her new home lies a ruinous labyrinth, into which the girl begins regularly to plunge. There she meets the imposing faun (embodied by Doug Jones) who has gone by "so many names" and gives the girl a set of three tasks to prove her worth.
Meanwhile, Vidal goes after the guerillas hiding out in the highland woods. He shall have "a new, clean Spain" under Franco even if he must kill every in-country enemy to cleanse it. As Ofelia tells to her mother's bulging belly, "Brother, things out here aren't too good." That Vidal is a stone-cold killer establishes that Pan's Labyrinth is no kid's movie, but rather a fairy tale for adults. As such, del Toro—who has made both artsy horror (Cronos) and horrific pop art (Hellboy)—is the perfect man for the job. One of Ofelia's tasks pits her against a Pale Man (also del Toro regular Jones), who has to be seen to be believed; it's one of several squirm-inducing scenes that del Toro handles with evident glee.
The story is somewhat deceptively simple in its themes of familial betrayal and bloody growing pains. Though each level may be simple in and of itself, the film works on a few: as a terrible reality lined with a child's fantasy, as a genuine supernatural adventure, and as an allegory for a nation struggling against feverishly wrongheaded fascism. Primarily, however, Pan's Labyrinth is a fresh opportunity to revel in the darkly beautiful dreamscapes unleashed by the increasingly masterful del Toro.
[For Groucho's interview with Guillermo del Toro, click here.]