Not many major movies star bookish, little girls. Period. Guillermo del Toro earned my respect and admiration straight away for creating the character of Ofelia, in a remarkable performance by eleven-year-old Ivana Baquero. The movie starts: Ofelia is in the back seat of an expensive car with her very pregnant mother, whisked off into the countryside where Ofelia's new stepfather, a Fascist captain, wages war against a band of resistance fighters at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. The real world is a grim and scary place; the fairy tale land where Ofelia seeks solace is not much friendlier.
Pan's Labyrinth offers unparalleled escape. Doing what movies do best, Ofelia's story--and that of the gleefully evil Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) and determined Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), the housekeeper who is also a rebel--takes you far out of your own life into an extraordinary other world, into a story so engrossing that it's impossible to think about anything else but the movie on the screen.
Two stories take place simultaneously. In the real world, the adolescent Ofelia is asked to behave: to put away her books, wear a pretty princess dress (Baquero charmingly looks the part), and try to get along with the stepfather she instinctively loathes. The rebels in the hills are outnumbered and dying, Ofelia's mother falls ill and the future of her unborn brother is at risk.
In the imaginary land, Ofelia is an actual princess who has been mistakenly sent to live amongst the humans. In order to reclaim her rightful position in her kingdom, she must perform three difficult tasks, assigned to her by an untrustworthy faun. The tasks require courage and fortitude; Ofelia, so dreamy and fragile, reveals enormous reserves of strength. She stands up to not only her step father, but a terrifically repulsive giant toad. There are magnificent insect-like fairies who offer moments of delight, but Ofelia finds most comfort with the housekeeper, Mercedes (Verdu), a kindred spirit whose own belief in fairies has dimmed with the passing of time.
Guillermo del Toro's vision has created a film that will last: an enduring fairytale that resonates and offers new interpretations with every viewing. The tear-inducing ending is enormously sad, but it's also happy as can be when Ofelia joins her rightful family. The story is a genuine classic, with a remarkable girl at the film's beating heart.