In Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," it's 1944, the fascists have just won Spain's brutal civil war and a young girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is traveling with her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to live with her new stepfather, a Nationalist army captain named Vidal (Sergi López). When Ofelia arrives at her new home -- an abandoned mill on the edge of a forest that still shelters Republican guerrillas -- it becomes clear that she matters little to Vidal, who is more concerned that the baby her mother is carrying turns out to be the son he has always coveted.
Ofelia increasingly takes refuge from the brutality of her surroundings in a richly imagined fantasy life, one that eventually leads her to a faun living in the titular labyrinth on the house's property. Meanwhile, Vidal's housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú), is covertly helping the rebels in the woods outside and befriends the young girl, who, in creating an increasingly elaborate and highly charged private world, isn't retreating from reality as much as resisting it.
Like all great fairy tales, "Pan's Labyrinth" features a girl on the cusp of womanhood who embarks on a quest; when she meets the faun -- a fantastical creature played by Doug Jones with the help of prosthetics, puppeteers and computer animation -- he charges her with completing three tasks to prove that she's worthy of the supernatural company she's keeping.
With this film, del Toro seems to have created his manifesto, a tour de force of cautionary zeal, humanism and magic. At this writing, "Pan's Labyrinth" is the best-reviewed film of 2006 listed on the movie review Web site Metacritic.com, and for a reason: It's just that great.
-- Ann Hornaday (Jan. 12, 2007)
Contains graphic violence and profanity. In Spanish with subtitles.