Pan's Labyrinth ★★★★★

From the first scene to the last scene, Pan's Labyrinth is an enthralling, dark fantasy that deftly switches between the whimsical yet frightening fantasy world and the horrors of war and fascism.

Set against the backdrop of fascist Spain in the year 1944, Ofelia and her pregnant mother move into their new home with her tyrannical step-father. Soon she discovers a decaying labyrinth guarded by a mysterious faun, who claims if she wants to return to her real father, she must complete three tasks for him.

Pan's Labyrinth is narratively involving and dramatically engrossing. It's clear that Del Toro is a fan of classic fairy tales, and children's stories, but he refrains from indulging in too many cliches here, you can tell the films influences, yet it feels wholly original. As the horrors of the real world, and the ticking clock of the full moon permeate the final act, there's a rise in tension that shot up my spine as I bounced my knees up and down in fear that our main characters may accomplish their goals. It's a truly exhilarating experience, there are a handful of moments that warranted that reaction. One in which a terrifying pale faced monster who holds his eyeballs in his hands, wakes from his slumber after our protagonist eats from his dinner table (the one thing she was told not to do), and chases her down a hallway. It was nail biting and suspenseful, not just because it was a wonderfully well-executed scene, but because by that point I was thoroughly invested in the heroine, I wanted to see her succeed.

Ivana Baquero is a gem of a child actor, emotive and honest, she carries the emotional weight of the film with grace and nuance. The other standout in the cast is Sergei Lopez who plays the sinister fascist Captain Vidal. His presence is threatening, and his performance is near perfect.

Though it is steeped in children's fairy tale and myths, and imagination, this is not a film for kids. Contrasting the whimsical side of it is the brutally violent side. The harsh reality of war and evil men. Their are some genuinely shocking bouts of violence. Pan's Labyrinth takes place in a dangerous world, both the fantasy and the real world are scary places and all we can do is hope that our protagonists make it out alive.

The visuals are grim, but oddly pleasing. The fantasy environments give the feeling that they are decaying, rotting away, waiting for a imaginative child to roam free in them. Del Toro skillfully weaves in horror with wonder, surrealism with violence, imagination with the grim unyielding fact of reality.

Even though it's a fantasy picture, the film spends an awful lot of time on the conflict going on in the real world. Despite the film revealing that Ofelia is the only one that can see the fantasy world, the film makes it clear that she isn't dreaming it up. Del Toro makes the fantasy elements fit just right with the real world, which is challenging when you go from Captain Vidal brutally torturing a prisoner to a nine foot faun materializing in Ofelia's bedroom. Yet it doesn't feel jarring, it feels fluid, and natural. I guess it's a testament to how well the film embeds you in it's world, captures you so much you go with it and believe in it.

Despite the tragic nature of the story, the horrific sections of violence, the sinister villain, the grim visuals, by the end of the film I shed a tear, and I realized I was oddly uplifted by it. It was life-affirming, it was a true experience. What Del Toro has crafted here sits at the top of his filmography. It plays with cliche, it plays with fairy tale, it plays with Gothic horror, it plays with violence, it hits a lot of notes we've seen before, but it all comes together to create something entirely new.