Let's begin with the image from Pan's Labyrinth I cannot get out of my mind for even a minute, that of the fantastic creature called the Pale Man. With no eyes in his hideous head, this subterranean scourge sits inert at his underworld dinner table halfway through Guillermo del Toro's amazing fairy tale set in 1944 fascist Spain, like the very incarnation of a faceless, dormant evil. He's part real monster, part allegory; it may be best not to disturb him, but inevitably, adversity must be...faced. And when the fiend is aroused, by the presence of a brave young girl, to wreak havoc, he screws eyeballs with violently red pupils into his ugly, root-shaped hands, fingertips pointed and blackened as singed carrots. When not in use, the gelatinous orbs sit on a dinner plate like rejected hors d'oeuvres, like grapes of wrath.
With his palms splayed in front of his Voldemortian visage, the Pale Man played by the director's reliable American onscreen interpreter of weird, Doug Jones is the most thrillingly creepy humanoid I've seen since the creeps in Hellboy. Actually, the Pale Man, and Pan himself (also played by Jones), shiver my timbers even more, since Hellboy was like something out of a cracked superhero comic book while Pan's Labyrinth is a deeply felt Spanish-language history lesson, an adult fairy tale, and an outstanding work of art all at once. And it is no accident that del Toro is the creator of both. From Cronos through Hellboy, The Devil's Backbone (his other child's-eye Spanish history lesson), and Blade II, the Mexican auteur has been working toward this supreme moment of cinematic synthesis, where art, pop, and political passion are perfectly mixed with his own unique, childlike access to the visual language of unfettered imagination. The movie is that original, and that attuned to the power of myth. I don't see why it shouldn't sit on the same altar of High Fantasy as the Lord of the Rings trilogy it's that worthy.
Like any great myth, Pan's Labyrinth encodes its messages through displays of magic. And like any good fairy tale, it is also embroidered with threads of death and loss. On the surface, here is the story of Ofelia (preternaturally mature Spanish newcomer Ivana Baquero), a lonely girl who arrives with her ailing, pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), at the bunkerlike hideaway of steely Captain Vidal (Sergi López from Dirty Pretty Things). Why the widowed Carmen has given herself to such a fascist brute remains unexplained her role is to carry his unborn child while he and his men pass their days murdering resistance fighters in the hills. All we know is that Ofelia, a dreamy bookworm, submerges the sadness of her everyday existence with such inventiveness that it's hard to tell where the real world ends and fantasy begins. In such a puzzle palace, she's a lost princess, and the monsters she confronts (as every heroine must) are far more spectacular-looking than Captain Vidal and his chilling stare. (In truth, the great López, for whom del Toro wrote the role, is a mesmerizing sight, instantly recognizable by the blue-gray death palette of his wardrobe, just as Baquero is a vision in hues of tender green that suggest new growth.)
This is a tale within a tale within a tale, a chameleon creation in which the actual and the symbolic intermingle so intuitively that we're happy to divest ourselves of logic to go with the flow suggested by the movie's lulling, lingering seven-note musical theme. (Javier Navarrete's simple signature tune is most haunting when sung or hummed, a cappella, in the voice of a girl or a woman.) The movie is also a breathtaking visual creation, a feat of hypnotism from cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, who gives even CG fairies and frogs their own shimmering dignity. The labyrinth Ofelia negotiates is as twisty as a dream, and as in a dream, the detours are as rewarding as the main road. (Y Tu Mamá También's Maribel Verdú plays the captain's resourceful housekeeper, who secretly aids the hidden partisans and first introduces Ofelia to the real garden maze on the grounds of the estate.)
Rated R, for some graphic, blood-spattering violence, Pan's Labyrinth may for now be off-limits to the very viewers to whom the story is so respectfully dedicated. Fair enough, so long as one day soon they're granted admission to enter del Toro's magic kingdom, where adults can gasp at a filmmaker's magic.