I never would have gone to see this film were it not for its split identity. Part of the story involves a little girl, Ofelia, who travels with her mother to a mill serving as the headquarters for a captain of the Spanish army just after the Spanish Civil War. The captain, a regimented, callous man, is the woman's new husband and father of her unborn son. While the woman rests in advance of giving birth, the captain seeks to locate and eliminate rebels hiding in the hills. This portion of the story certainly works, and even delivers some powerful scenes as we witness the captain's uncompromising brutality, but it treads fairly familiar ground-- the abusive military leader, the housekeeper sympathetic to the rebels and protective of the children, the doctor true to his oath first. If that was all there was to the film, it would merit little true notice.
Ofelia, however, is not an ordinary child. Her soul is that of a princess of a lost underground realm. Early in her journey she discovers a stone carving of an eye, and when she replaces that piece into the stone plinth from which it came she encounters a large stickbug-like insect that she calls a fairy. The fairy follows her to the mill and, in one of the truly magical moments of the film, visibly transforms itself to match Ofelia's notion of what a fairy really looks like. It leads her to an ancient labyrinth behind the mill, where she meets a satyr-like creature called a faun who informs Ofelia of who she really is and tells her she has a chance to return to her father's realm.
The fantasy sequences are inventive and vivid. The use of CGI is utterly transparent, with the fairies integrating seamlessly into the scene and never once feeling like a distraction. The faun was particularly well-done, possessing an ancient quality to his movement and voice that utterly sells the idea that he's been around for a very long time. While the fantasy storyline takes its cues from countless fairy tales, it feels fresh and new thanks to the art design, dark palette, and direction.
So is Ofelia really a princess, or is she just a girl with an active imagination? The film is agnostic on this question until the very end, when it seems to suggest an answer by showing a shot of Ofelia from the captain's point of view. That single shot completely ruined the effect of the film for me. Part of what makes the movie work is that, by consistently treating the fantastic elements as real but showing them only within the context of Ofelia's experience, the question of their reality is left to the judgment of the viewer. Did Ofelia really draw a doorway and sneak into the mill, or did she just find an unlocked door or hidden opening? We don't know. Did she really confront a giant frog, or just crawl around in the mud? We don't know. We can either believe or not. But at the end, the filmmakers seem to answer that key question for us, which trivializes the experience and removes much of the magic. Cut that one shot, and the audience leaves the film with no clear answer and must interpret for themselves.
With that one caveat, I was utterly captivated by Pan's Labyrinth. If anything, I would have liked to have seen Ofelia delve even deeper into the fantasy world so that we could see more delightful creatures and environments from the mind of writer/director Guillermo del Toro. Don't let the fact that this is a subtitled film keep you from the theater, but don't bring the kids-- this is not a Disney film.