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For all the acclaim director Guillermo Del Toro generated with Hellboy the high point of his career to that point was very definitely The Devil's Backbone. Though underseen Backbone is a fantastically evocative ghost story set in an all boys boarding school against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War that offers ample proof that for all of his technical skills Del Toro's greatest gifts are his unbridled imagination and crystal clear recollection of what the world is like to a child: wondrous and full of magic, yes, but also frequently dark and hostile.
With Pan's Labyrinth returns to this same fertile ground, offering up a fairy tale with a young female protagonist set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. And once again Del Toro demonstrates that building a film around a young star does not necessarily mean producing light and fluffy family fare. A fairy tale it may be but Pan's Labyrinth is very much a Grimm tale, not a Disney one, a story where magic runs rampant in a dark and dangerous world filled with violence and hate where magical creatures are known to eat careless children and the humans are no more trustworthy. This is not - I repeat, NOT - a children's film.
The hero of the piece is Ofelia, a young bookish girl moving into remote rural woodlands with her mother to join her step-father - a violent, controlling fascist military officer hunting down the last guerilla fighters that remain to oppose Franco's rule. During a pit stop along the way Ofelia repairs an unusual statue, the statue in turn releasing a large insect that Ofelia believes - correctly, as it turns out - is a fairy. The fairy, for its part eventually leads Ofelia to the heart of an ill kept labyrinth near to her step father's military encampment where she meets the titular Pan, who informs her that she is the reincarnation of a fairy princess and may return to her magical realm only if she can complete three tasks before the full moon arrives.
Most of the promotional materials are drawn from this fantasy world, and understandably so as it is absolutely stunning, but the real meat of the story and bulk of the run time occurs in the human world. Ofelia's step-father is openly hostile to her presence, acknowledging her only because of her mother. Mother, for her part, is in the midst of a difficult pregnancy and largely bed ridden. The housekeeper, Ofelia's only true friend in the house, is involved in the resistance movement against Franco which leads to a great deal of tension. Even beyond his hostility towards the young girl, the military captain is a horrendous, monstrous man who rules with an iron fist, caring only for his own ends, and capable of sudden, dramatic bursts of violence. This is no place for a child.
Pan's Labyrinth revolves around the loss of innocence, Ofelia's journey reflecting the war's toll upon Spain itself, the young girl retreating farther and farther into her magical land to escape both the malevolence of her step-father and illness of her mother, dangerous forces she cannot understand and has no control over. The production values, as you would expect from Del Toro, are positively incredible but it is not the images on screen that will linger, it is the horribly heart wrenching finale to Ofelia's journey, Del Toro proving yet again that he is one of those rare film makers who can mine his fertile imagination to bolster and enhance the truthfulness of his characters without overwhelming them.
The easy road to this material would be to treat Ofelia as a child-hero. A better, and more difficult, path would be to treat it as a coming of age story. Del Toro has chosen a third, higher, and more difficult path: this is not a coming of age but the end of one. It is masterful, heartbreaking and his finest work to date.