Del Toro already had used the idea in "The Devil's Backbone," but here he handles it better and it has become darker, and even more metaphoric. When the film begins, the Civil War has been over for five years, but a small group of rebels fights regardless in the northern mountains of Navarra. Wistful 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves to Navarra with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to become acquainted with her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a Fascist officer under orders to rid the territory of rebels.
Captain Vidal sets up quarters inside a crumbling mill. He is overpowering and makes no effort to befriend his stepdaughter. The lonely child turns for friendship to Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), a young cook working for Vidal's troops.
Ofelia, fascinated by fairytales, discovers an overgrown, ruined labyrinth behind the mill. In the heart of the labyrinth she meets Pan, an ancient satyr (Doug Jones, beneath thick layers of special effects), who claims to know her true identity and her secret destiny. The satyr explains to Ofelia that she is not who she thinks she is; she is a lost princess, and she can return to where she belongs if she carries out the three tasks he gives her. Time is running out -- for Ofelia and for the rebels. Both will have to battle hardship and cruelty in order to gain their freedom. But who can be trusted in a time of lies and danger? Is Pan telling the truth? And if not, who is?
In his highly atmospheric film, Del Toro also extracts some excellent performances, especially Lopez, who makes his character a monster with some human qualities, and Maribel Verdú as Ofelia's ailing mother.
Del Toro, who first came to attention with 1993's "Cronos," followed by 1997's "Mimic," 2001's "The Devil's Backbone," 2002's "Blade 2" and 2004's "Hellboy," stamps his visual sensibility on every frame, and the fantasy sequences -- mixing practical effects, computer animation and much more -- are a knockout.
"Pan's Labyrinth" may be a fairytale out of bounds to children, but it definitely forms the stuff of adult nightmares. Starring Sergi Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil, Doug Jones, Ivana Baquero, Alex Angulo, Roger Casamajor, Chema Ruiz and Manolo Solo. Directed and written by Guillermo Del Toro. Produced by Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, Frida Torresblanco and Bertha Navarro. A Picturehouse release. Supernatural horror. Not yet rated. Running time: 112 min