Guillermo Del Toro's new film, Pan's Labyrinth, is about young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who finds a gateway to a fantastic world of gods and monsters, pleasures and perils; a fairly standard set up. She's her mother's best friend, especially now that her mother has married her wicked step-father; again, off the production line for fairy tales. But Ofelia's new father isn't merely wicked; he's a Captain in Franco's army after the right-wing has seized Spain, and this is where you get a sense of the customary flair and shading Del Toro's putting on traditional fantasy ideas.
Good fantasy takes place in a world full of conflicts -- between good and evil, desire and sacrifice, cruelty and mercy, freedom and slavery. Or, put more succinctly, good fantasy can often be appreciated in terms of how much it resembles the real world, not by how much it departs from it. When Ofelia finds a fantastic kingdom in the labyrinth garden near her new home, it's a bizarre place full of visions and creatures and a smiling-scary satyr (actor Doug Jones, performing in thick layers of extraordinarily well-done practical effects). As odd and frightening as that world seems, it's just as odd and frightening as the world she lives in normally -- where her new father, Captain Vidal (Sergi López) is dedicated to wiping out the republican holdouts and local partisans by any bloody means necessary. The satyr explains to Ophelia 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, without fail and without question.
There are some fine performances here; watching Baquero succeed in effects-heavy sequences that still have an emotional charge thanks to her work brings home just how skilled an actress she is, while Lopez's Vidal is an entirely human monster. Maribel Verdú (as Ofelia's ailing, conflicted mother) and Ariadna Gil (as a woman on the side of the resistance) bring a nice charge to their scenes as well.
But it's Del Toro's show, in more senses of the phrase than one. His visual sensibility is in every frame of the film, and the fantasy sequences -- mixing practical effects, computer animation and much more -- have a terrible, beautiful quality to them, while the scenes in the real world manage to contrast the peace and beauty of nature with the brutal blasts of warfare. Pan's Labyrinth is not for kids -- it's a bit too bloody and disturbing for that, including one truly terrifying image that Del Toro's borrowed from Goya's Saturn Devours His Children -- but adult fantasy fans will find it a glorious, gripping feast for the eyes that not only creates stunning images but also has the story and characters to make it penetrate past the visual cortex and linger in that place where you keep nightmares and dreams.