Guillermo del Toro has crafted a masterpiece with "Pan's Labyrinth," a terrifying, visually wondrous fairy tale for adults that blends fantasy and gloomy drama into one of the most magical films to come along in years.
Writer-director del Toro is spot on with every ingredient of his tale about a dreamy, bookish girl existing among two circles of monsters: the mythic creatures in her fertile fantasies and the more petrifying ones in her real life in 1944 Fascist Spain.
The images are visceral, surreal, bewildering, unnerving. The drama is passionate, profound, tragic, startling. It's a film of horrors and marvels, the tone ranging from savage atrocity to divine benevolence, the movie bursting with provocative ambiguity that provides the stuff of endless debate over the story's meaning and even its outcome.
Needless to say, this is not a fable for the kiddies.
Del Toro has made such Hollywood fare as "Mimic," "Blade II" and "Hellboy," but this is a return to the more personal horror of his earlier films "Cronos" and "The Devil's Backbone," the latter also set in the early days of Fascist Spain, the AP said.
The film opens with a narrated prologue set in an underworld whose dark, murky imagery sets viewers up for del Toro's seamless transitions from reality to fantasyland.
Curious about the land above, the underworld's princess leaves her realm and lives out her life among mortal humans, her father convinced that one day her soul will be reborn for him to bring back home.
Del Toro then presents a caravan of cars carrying young Ofelia (the remarkably expressive, precocious Ivana Baquero) and her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) to their new home in rural Spain.
The widowed Carmen has married Capt. Vidal (Sergei Lopez), who has set up his military camp at an old mill to root out the remnants of anti-Fascist rebels in the surrounding woods and hills.
With icy charm and vicious cruelty rivaling that of Ralph Fiennes' Nazi commandant in "Schindler's List," Vidal is the ultimate personification of the evil step-parent. He's a psycho with a uniform and impunity to act on whatever bloody, black-hearted whims that enter his deranged mind.
Vidal has a simple hierarchy for his new family. Most important is his unborn son that Carmen soon will deliver. Next is Carmen, for whom he has superficial tolerance, mainly as incubator for the child that will carry on his name. Last is Ofelia, at whom he glowers as though she were a runt kitten he might drown in a canvas sack.
With her mother ailing and preoccupied, Ofelia finds human solace only with Vidal's capable, motherly but secretive housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu).
Yet another world beckons. In the ruins of an ancient labyrinth ornamented with pagan images, Ofelia meets the satyr Pan (Doug Jones), a horned, hooved creature who tells her she is the princess of the underworld and must perform three tasks to return to her real father and the splendor of his kingdom.
Aided by tiny flying fairies, Ofelia obediently carries out her assignments, which include facing a giant, repugnant toad and a pale ogre (Jones again) that devours children.
Recall your most vivid nightmare and you probably won't rival the terror of the ogre's bizarre ocular anatomy and his pursuit of Ofelia. It's one of the most striking and rattling sequences ever captured on film.
The visuals in Ofelia's fairy land are as dazzling as anything Terry Gilliam has dreamed up. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a story that gestated for years - maybe since childhood - in del Toro's bountiful imagination, and the results are visionary.
The musty, fecund grandness of the fantasy images contrast brilliantly with the pitiless brutality of Vidal's actions in the real world. As harrowing as Ofelia's inner world is, it's often more inviting a place than her harsh reality.
Lopez, whose credits include "Dirty Pretty Things" and the title role in the thriller "With a Friend Like Harry...," is so good that he's unredeemingly loathsome as Vidal, a full-bodied archetype of a monster who fits right alongside the witches of Hansel and Gretel, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.
With her pained yet defiant eyes, Verdu is the maternal soul of the film, while Jones' Pan is an ideal trickster, tender and playful one minute, uncaring and malevolent the next.
And Baquero - 11 years old when she was cast, with just a few small film roles behind her - is a natural, conveying both the innocence of childhood and the weariness of an old soul who already has seen it all, and then some.
"Pan's Labyrinth" is a film for the scared little child in all of us, yearning for signs that the magic of our dreams truly exists yet fearing that it doesn't. It alternately haunts and consoles, intimidates and exhilarates, as all great fairy tales should.
"Pan's Labyrinth," a Picturehouse release, runs 119 minutes. Four stars out of four.