With a CV which includes 'Cronos', 'The Devil's Backbone', 'Blade II' and 'Hellboy', Guillermo del Toro has become one of the most acclaimed young directors working in the horror/fantasy world. With 'Pan's Labyrinth' he takes his work to another level, showing he is more than just a genre director and hopefully winning more fans in the process.
Set in Spain in 1944, the film tells the story of Ofelia (Baquero), a 12-year-old girl whose pregnant widowed mother (Gil) is about to marry the sadistic army captain Vidal (Lopez). Ofelia and her mother travel to the outpost where Vidal and his men are based as they hunt for the last remaining anti-fascist fighters who are hiding in the surrounding woods. While menace and danger hang heavy, from the moment the story-loving Ofelia sets foot in the area she becomes aware of its magic and is drawn to an overgrown labyrinth nearby. In the days and weeks ahead she will find herself tested in the real world and the one which only she can see.
While 'Pan's Labyrinth' might not be for everyone - there are scenes that are brutal and frightening - its message about hope as the world caves in and looking at things through eyes of wonder deserves more than just an arthouse audience. Here is a film where every performance is excellent and where you form a connection with the characters that Hollywood script doctors could spend an entire career trying to equal.
The one disappointment is that for all the creatures and imagery, the fantasy world Ofelia enters is never as compelling or moving as the real one which she escapes from. It could be argued that the weaker one makes the other even stronger, but so too is there justification for saying that del Toro should've made two separate films. Either way, it's a minor moot point for one of the most unusual films of the year.
If Harry Potter does nothing for you, then this film probably will. You won't see it on TV every Christmas, but it is a gift you should bestow upon yourself.