The term "fairy tale" is chronically overused by film critics, frequently to describe something delicate, ethereal and sometimes syrupy. With this grim yet achingly beautiful fable, director Guillermo del Toro reminds us that fairy tales are a nasty business, filled with nightmare visions that haunt and delight equally, sending an electric tingle down our spines and into our darkest inner corners.
This remarkable film spins a yarn about a little girl trapped between a dream world of ghouls and real-life monsters during the Spanish Civil War, and it works remarkably well, simultaneously enchanting and horrifying with almost every frame.
Amazing young actress Ivana Baquero plays Ofelia, the 11-year-old daughter of Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who has recently wed the gallant but cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). She joins him at a creaky old mill converted into a command center from which Franco's forces hunt for rebels hidden in the woods. The forest also harbors strange and magical creatures, foremost a freaky faun (Doug Jones), who tells Ofelia she might be the reincarnated soul of a princess who can reunite with her lonely father if she just completes a few tasks. Those tasks involve lush fantasy sequences loaded with an astounding menagerie of creatures, both vicious and benign, including a giant frog, a root that comes alive and a dragonfly that transforms into a fluttering pixie.
Back in reality, the truly terrifying captain is becoming increasingly unstable, torturing prisoners, abusing underlings and showing growing contempt for the mother of his unborn son.
Ofelia fears her baby brother's arrival. And as the camera dives down through the belly to show the fetus floating peacefully in a golden sea, Ofelia begs him not to harm her mother from within.
Such tranquil moments are offset by brutal ones the bloodshed is painful and shocking but never exploitive; it serves the story's harsh themes.
Known for his stunning visuals in exciting genre vehicles like Hellboy and Chronos, del Toro throws everything he's got at screen with a realist style that's rich and unbelievably imaginative. Its vision resembles Tim Burton's at his best, or what Peter Jackson did in Heavenly Creatures.
Indeed Pan's Labyrinth is a masterwork, the sort of passionate and alive filmmaking that does what movies should infiltrate your dreams.
Opens Friday, Jan. 19, at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.