A terrifying, imaginative fairytale about an underground kingdom and a lost princess, Pan’s Labyrinth springs from the mind of a young girl living in the household of a vicious army officer shortly after the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a curious and bookish girl whose pregnant mother marries the fascistic and powerful Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). They move to his household where he commands troops against the nearby rebel forces hidden in the surrounding forest. Vidal’s housemaid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), shows kindness to Ofelia, who in turn keeps quiet about Mercedes’ secret involvement with the rebels. As a means of escape and to cope with her mother’s pregnancy complications, Ofelia imagines a secret world in the labyrinth on the grounds where she meets a woodland faun who gives her three tasks to complete so that she may join the magical land beyond.
Director Guillermo Del Toro combines his astounding talent for visual effects and imaginative storytelling to bring to life the grotesque and fanciful beings and the mysterious and spooky scenery of Ofelia’s fairytale world. The nameless faun (although it is assumed that he is the titular Pan) is a humanoid giant, marvellously carved and twisted like an old tree trunk and topped with massive ram’s horns. Another remarkable creature, although far more freakish and horrifying than the friendly Pan, is the hairless monstrosity called the Pale Man. He sports a horrific gaping mouth, eats children and fairies, and his eyes are located in the palms of his pointy, blackened hands. The strange, Wonderland-esque underground tunnels and secret rooms that Ofelia journeys into for her quest are also chock-full of careful detail, from real mud and slime to aged murals painted on the ceiling.
The main characters themselves are also well written. Ofelia is a brave, observant child whose active imagination and love for her mother and unborn brother make her a worthy protagonist. Vidal is a truly evil villain, not only revelling in acts of violence and torture and being incapable of showing an ounce of love or humanity towards his wife and stepdaughter but also aligning himself to historical baddie General Franco. Mercedes, who, for the most part, has a separate storyline to Ofelia, is also an admirable heroine due to her own cleverness and aptitude, her secret betrayal of her master, Vidal, and her link to the rebel forces. All in all, Pan’s Labyrinth reaches hits all the markers of classic fairytales with renewed interest in the historical darkness and warning of real-world dangers á la Grimm, Perrault, and Andersen while retaining its child-like wonder and creativity.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 shape-shifting fairies