Walking into the theatre, I knew little about Pan's Labyrinth beyond it being a foreign flick where reading was involved. Set in Spain in 1944, we meet Ofelia, 12 or so, and her mom Carmen, traveling out to the middle of nowhere to where Carmen's new husband, Captain Vidal, is hunting Fascist rebels in the mountains around his fort-like cabin home/base.
Set against the stark contrast of the location and Vidal's tyranny is Ofelia's imagination and pursuit of an insect she believes -- correctly -- is a fairy. Her chat with the fairy sets in motion a series of three tests a faun gives her as they speak in an underground sort of temple within the labyrinth in the home's garden.
While I freely admit not being a follower of most fantast-types of films, this dabbled in the topic just enough to keep it interesting. No one went overboard with spells and wizards and the like. Rather, the elements of Ofelia's fantasy world crossed over rarely, but at credible points to where the blending of her fantasy and reality came to life. (The faun giving her a root to help her mom get well as she works through a difficult pregnant, for one.) The fact that Captain Vidal and mom both saw the root sets out that it wasn't just Ofelia's fantasy to help her mom, and the doctor commented mom's recovery was nothing shy of miraculous.
The story doesn't necessarily conclude in any groundbreaking way, but the magic of the story wasn't in the destination -- it was the journey. I often use the subtitles of the film as a benchmark of how successful a storyteller the director and cast are.
In 'Pan's Labyrinth,' director Guillermo del Toro and the cast all but left me unaware I was still reading the dialogue. (To help there, much of the film relies on the visuals of time, place, and characters, so you don't find yourself struggling to keep up with a flurry of subtitled dialogue, either.)
All in all, a well developed story that was delivered in a satisfying manner by Ofelia (12-year-old Ivana Baquero), her mom, Captain Vidal as the cruel, victory-at-all-costs guy, and Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), the head housekeeper and secret supporter of the Fascists her employer so badly wants to destroy. There are a few scenes where del Toro doesn't hesitate to use the blood-and-gore to show Vidal's evil side or Mercedes determination to survive, but as with any war, things aren't always pretty (but don't let that discourage your adding this film to your Must See list).