Director Guillermo Del Toro is, first and foremost, a visual artist. His film carry a common denominator of carefully constructed frames marked by fantastic imaginings, and these are the things that linger in the memory after seeing the film: the smoke plume of blood flowing from a head wound in The Devil's Backbone, the perfectly realization of Mike Mignola's comic book world in Hellboy, even the creature unfolding itself and its secrets in the process in the underrated Mimic. The emphasis on the images is never at the expense of the story, exactly. It's just that the stories don't carry as much richness as Del Toro's imaginings made as real as film can make them, so the progress of the characters becomes a sort of afterthought.
So it seems a perfect match for Del Toro to craft a fairy tale, a type of story that practically begs for comforting simplicity, where unexpected marvels naturally carry the weight. The new film Pan's Labyrinth is indeed a deep, dark fairy tale, but Del Toro also takes the enduring purpose of fairy tales as a hopeful charge into a land more wondrous than their own and dramatizes it. For many children, the fairly tales are simply an escape for the plainness of their own experience, where they world grows disappointingly smaller with every day and every new discovery. For others, it a far more necessary escape, a safehouse away from a grim, dangerous home. This is the case for the protagonist of Pan's Labyrinth, a ten-year-old named Sofia.
The film takes place in Spain in 1944, during the beginning of Franco's despotic rule. Sofia arrives with her mother at the home of her new stepfather, a military leader fighting off a local rebellion while dispensing clumps of bread to the citizenry with the begrudging benevolence of a fickle deity. He's a vicious man, which Sofia's mother, pregnant with his child, tolerates because there are few other options for her. Sofia seeks refuge in the strange world revealing itself in the great stone labyrinth on the grounds of the estate. There is a faun that promises her she is the lost princess from a mystical land, and a quest involving an oversized amphibian, a mysterious key and an enchanted chunk of chalk.
For all the charm it holds, Pan's Labyrinth is a dark, uncompromising film. The military captain father, played with focused menace by Sergi Lopez, is no cardboard villain, but a font of malevolent rage, his self-perceived power manifested through explosive violence. The movie is not gory in the way of the new splatter renaissance but the frank violence Del Toro puts on screen is more affecting in its purposefulness. Every moment that's hard to watch is there for a reason beyond making the audience squirm; Del Toro is establishing levels of danger and brutality that are more disturbing that that jolting gushers of blood that populate lesser films.
Del Toro has made a film that is a paean to the powers of imagination. It's a splendid testament to the inventions of a wandering mind, even when those inventions scare us a little. It's a terrific film, bathed in the muddy colors of dusk and yet bright with the splendor of unfettered inspiration. It is unmistakably the work of its director, from the soothing growl of its storybook opening narration to its brave, beautiful ending.