Forgive the streams of blood that course their way throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, as its source is a huge, hard-pumping heart that beats within this grim, unexpectedly hopeful adult fairytale.
Writer-director Guillermo Del Toro always has been a meticulous master, composing reams of sketches and notes for ornately grotesque moments in his horror films, whether they’re franchise efforts (Hellboy, Blade II) or allegorical period pieces (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone).
More invigorating here is Del Toro’s emotional awakening to what can be taken from harsh brutality, how pain propels frantic scrambles for beauty and solace in life’s indeterminate time. Soaked in as much soul as crimson gore, Labyrinth washes you over with lavish filmmaking, but also makes you feel suffering at three levels — the larger world of a nation (fascist Spain in 1944), the personal world of a child and the supernatural world of magnificently created creatures.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a girl living in Spain after a Civil War that has sent guerrilla tacticians scrambling to the countryside. She arrives at a rural mill complex with her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to live with Capitan Vidal (Sergi López). He’s a fascist military man whom Carmen has married for security and safety and who insists Ofelia call him father. But Vidal’s goal is a clinically direct one, as he cares more for his namesake son-to-be than forging a family.
Captivated by a forest critter, Ofelia ventures deep into the woods and finds an outpost where mythical creatures exist in the shadows of night. They’re remnants of a fantastic otherworld in demise since the death of its human princess years ago, and default leader Pan (Doug Jones, in elaborate costume) believes Ofelia is a reincarnation of that royalty. Should she complete a series of tasks, she can save their world from being erased forever.
Ofelia riskily descends into a tree’s brambly bowels to retrieve a key from a goopy toad and becomes especially endangered in the film’s best scene, a blend of childlike temptation with ghastly imagery. Presented with a table full of delicious food, Ofelia mustn’t eat anything unless she wants to become a permanent guest of the Pale Man (also Jones), a surreal ghoul with eyes in his hands.
She’s no safer in the real world, as Vidal caves in villagers’ faces and commits horrific military executions with frigid emotional detachment. When medical and military complications arise, Ofelia must find the resolve to juggle both her personal and paranormal fates.
As the tendrils of Vidal’s menace spread to Ofelia, López creates one of the decade’s most horrifying villains. The emotional emptiness that has eroded him easily could spread to wipe out Ofelia and Carmen, making them oh-so-minor collateral damage en route to preserving his violent legacy. It’s a hauntingly full-bore incarnation of evil countered by strong forces of good, embodied by Maribel Verdú and Alex Angulo as not-so-subjugated servants in Vidal’s sphere.
Baquero’s part is far less flashy, but shows toughness forming by necessity within Ofelia’s mind and actions. It is as much her performance, as Del Toro’s marvelous control over so many different elements, that makes Pan’s Labyrinth feel so immediate, compelling and essential.
Employing elegance, tension, fright and invention, Pan’s Labyrinth holds court with rapture and awe from start to finish, with a conclusion solidifying it as the stuff of stories turned legends. It’s one of the very best films of 2006.