Guillermo del Toro, who calls himself "the geek from Guadalajara," fires up a classic cinematic fantasy in Pan's Labyrinth, a film for all ages, as long as they're open to gothic twists that scare them senseless. Del Toro is just one of the three amigos showing our local boys how it's done. Mexico City's Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu cemented his reputation with Babel, the completion of a trilogy he began with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Not to be outdone, Alfonso Cuaron, also from Mexico City and a producer of Pan's Labyrinth, follows up Y Tu Mama Tambien and the only memorable Harry Potter film (The Prisoner of Azkaban) with another knockout, Children of Men.
Still, it's del Toro, 42, the gore master behind Hellboy and Blade II, who springs the biggest surprise. Pan's Labyrinth, horrific and heartfelt in the way it sees the trauma of war through the eyes of a little girl, is some kind of great movie. Nothing in del Toro's previous work, except his little-seen 2001 ghost story, The Devil's Backbone, prepares you for the impact of watching harsh reality and harsher fantasy bleed into each other. To hail Pan's Labyrinth for its visionary ravishments is hardly to do it justice. You leave del Toro's one-of-a-kind film feeling you've never seen the world before, not like this, not with such aching beauty and terror in the service of obliterating barriers of time, place, genre and language.
Set in the Madrid countryside in 1944 after the Spanish Civil War, when Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his repressive fascist guard attempted to quell rebel uprisings, the film makes no attempt to hide or soften the brutality of the period. If del Toro is the wizard of this surreal Oz, then Ofelia, played with resilient spirit and dark-eyed loveliness by eleven-year-old Ivana Baquero, is his Dorothy. As the film opens, Ofelia and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), have arrived at a garrison commanded by Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). Vidal is a sadistic monster, unaware that his housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu, touching and vital), is aiding the guerrillas he executes with cold-blooded abandon. Ofelia hates him, which is too bad, since Vidal is her new stepfather and her beloved mother is carrying his baby.
Ofelia's only solace is in the fairy tales she reads with devouring obsession. When her mother falls ill, Ofelia retreats into a fantasy world that mirrors the ferocity outside. She finds a garden labyrinth ruled by Pan (Doug Jones of Hellboy), a tall, goatish creature with menacing horns who sets her a series of tasks that have dire consequences if she can't complete them. There is also the Giant Toad and the shuddery Pale Man (also Jones), who holds his bulging eyes in his hands. With the help of production designer Eugenio Caballero and the superb cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, del Toro uses puppets, prosthetics and computer-generated images to create a haunting parallel universe where Ofelia can exert at least some control.
Still, it's the perils of the real world that Ofelia must confront at last in the person of Vidal, the spirit of fascism incarnate. Lopez is brilliant in the role, taking screen villainy to new levels by showing how a cruel ideology can contort the human into the bestial. Del Toro never coddles the audience. He means for us to leave Pan's Labyrinth shaken to our souls. He succeeds triumphantly.