Acute little girl wandering in an imaginary realm filled with fantastic creatures: This is the scenario for “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and while it may sound much like “Alice in Wonderland,” director Guillermo del Toro’s world is an altogether darker place.

If “Pan’s Labyrinth” has a precedent, it would be Terry Gilliam’s equally visionary “Brazil.” Both films posit dreams, imagination, even hallucination as the only sane response to the enveloping, gray death-grip of fascism. It also echoes Gilliam’s more recent “Tideland,” both in its choice of a preteen girl as protagonist and in the sense that she is in grave peril, from an onrushing darkness that her daydreaming can barely keep at bay.

Gilliam has been one-of-a-kind for several decades now, so it’s good to see he’s got some company. Del Toro’s intriguing career started in Mexico with the eerie 1993 vampire flick “Chronos,” which he followed up with the chilling Spanish Civil War tale “The Devil’s Backbone,” before going Hollywood with “Blade 2” and “Hellboy.” Unlike many promising non-American directors who get swallowed whole by the system, del Toro has maintained the admirable principle of only working on what interests him. (He’s based in Spain now, after his family was targeted by kidnappers in Mexico in 1997.)

Pan's Labyrinth
Director Guillermo del Toro
Run Time 119 minutes
Language Spanish
Opens Opens Oct. 6, 2007

After turning down a chance to direct a “Harry Potter” film in favor of the quirkier “Hellboy,” del Toro then also passed on “The Chronicles of Narnia” to instead make “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a much deeper Gothic tale of sacrifice and resurrection. Not for del Toro the facile Christian allegory of “Narnia”; “Pan’s Labyrinth” displays much more love for pagan myth, of half-man/half-beast creatures, shadowy gods and forest sprites. When Christianity does appear, it’s not Christ as savior, but the authoritarian Church aligned with fascism (as per history in Spain).

“Pan’s Labyrinth” takes place in Spain, 1944, in the hilly border region near France. World War II has turned against the fascist regimes of Europe, and guerrillas hold out in the forests, hoping that the Allies will also liberate Spain after Germany falls. (It never happened; Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s dictatorship continued until 1978.)

The film begins with a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) traveling with her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to a remote military post, where her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), is leading a brutal counterinsurgency campaign. Carmen is pregnant with the captain’s son, and it looks like her pregnancy is having complications.

Ofelia is not thrilled to be there; the captain is a harsh disciplinarian and it’s clear there’s no love lost between them. (These are the two best performances this year; Lopez manages a steely gaze that suggests strength curdled into pure dominating hate, while Baquero has a pure expressive ability to rival pros such as Zhang Ziyi or Irene Jacob.) Ofelia forgets her troubles in books, until she discovers an old, overgrown labyrinth in the woods. There she meets an ages-old faun (Doug Jones, under heavy makeup), who may be real or a figment of her active imagination. He tells her that she is the lost princess of the underworld, and that if she performs three tasks before the moon is full, she can return to her father’s kingdom.

Del Toro intriguingly meshes the realist and fantasist elements: Ofelia’s quest for a key guarded by a massive and repulsive toad in an underground burrow is contrasted with attempts by Ofelia’s friend and housemaid Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) to get a key to the rebels. Ofelia’s theft of a knife guarded by the “pale man” — a lurching, horrific devourer of youth — is paralleled with Mercedes concealing a kitchen knife, for which she will find good use later. And all the elements of the story — the captain’s obsession with time, the contrasting of birth and death, patriarchy and the Oedipal urge — lend a remarkable psychological richness and depth, without ever overcooking it. This is a film you can easily get the first time, but appreciate so much more the second.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is not for everyone; its darkness is partly the Tim Burton variety, but also partly Goya — uncomfortably terrifying. But no matter how you look at it, del Toro has taken Hollywood technique — visual storytelling, detailed CG, crisp editing — and pushed it into regions unknown. This is a wildly creative film that plays on your heart and your head, stunning in its rich imagery and ambitious in its themes.

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