Once upon a time a girl named Ofelia traveled with her pregnant mother to be by the side of the girl's stepfather, an army captain fighting guerrillas in the countryside of fascist Spain in 1944. To escape the brutal realities of the fighting around her, the 12-year-old Ofelia retreats into an ancient labyrinth where she meets a faun who tells her a fantastic story about how she must be the daughter of the king of the Underworld who ran away long ago. For Ofelia to return to the blissful Underworld and escape the guerrilla fighting, she must complete three tasks.
Spanish director Guillermo del Toro walks many fine lines in his Spanish-language film, Pan's Labyrinth. Perhaps the most surprising one is between fantasy and horror. The film may be a fairy tale, but it's set amongst the real-life horrors of fascist soldiers trying to mop up the last vestiges of Spain's brutal civil war. Del Toro earns every bit of his R rating-from harsh language that seems more base when read in subtitles to brutal acts of violence including murders of the guerrillas and knife wounds on the captain that should make even horror-movie veterans cringe.
Viewers get no respite in the fantasy world, either. Even the fairies are strangely ominous in Pan's Labyrinth. Ofelia's fairy shape shifts from some sort of massive insect to a kind of foreboding Tinker Bell. The faun she meets in the middle of the labyrinth is no Narnia creature, and the beasts within the fairy tale include the grotesque (a frog Ofelia must kill to retrieve a golden key from its stomach) and the deranged (a sleeping monster with eyes in the palms of its hands who sucks down a few fairies before trying to eat the girl). Del Toro's fairy tale does bear marks of good storytelling, rich themes of obedience and impressive cinematography. Although the noir fairy tale was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film, few will have the stomach to actually enjoy it.