Ofelia is 11, and her mother is taking her to live with her new husband in rural Spain. It's 1944, and Captain Vidal is an officer in the army of Franco's Fascists, trying to wipe out a group of rebels holed up in the nearby hills. The captain isn't particularly interested in his new stepdaughter; he doesn't even seem all that concerned with his new wife. What he cares about is the child -- a son, he's sure -- to which she is about to give birth.
Ofelia follows an odd-looking insect into the woods behind Vidal's house. It leads her to an ancient stone labyrinth, and presents her to the faun Pan, who believes that she may be the long-lost Princess Moanna of the underground world; to prove herself worthy of reclaiming her royal place, Ofelia must perform three difficult tasks before the next full moon.
Del Toro's movie is an odd, unsettling blend of war story and fairy tale (though it is most definitely not a movie for children), and it's hard to say which of Ofelia's worlds is the more frightening. Pan challenges her to face giant toads and the surreal Pale Man, whose eyes are located in his palms; reality presents her with a sadistic stepfather and a mother who may be dying. It is one of del Toro's greatest accomplishments that we are able to move so smoothly from one world to the other.
He's aided by a fine cast. Ivana Baquero, who was herself only 11 when the movie was filmed, is lovely as Ofelia, who bravely faces the first challenges of adulthood without anyone to rely on. Sergi Lopez is a terrific villain, pushing Captain Vidal's sadistic cruelty as far as possible without ever quite toppling into caricature. Doug Jones appears as both Pan and the Pale Man, and while his dialogue is dubbed (Jones speaks no Spanish), his physical presence in both roles is extraordinary. Best of all is Maribel Verdu as Mercedes, Vidal's housekeeper, who draws on unexpected resources to become one of Ofelia's strongest allies in both worlds (and who is nearly unrecognizable as the object of sexual obsession from Y tu mama tambien).
More than anything, I was dazzled by the magnificent, surreal imagery. The Pale Man at his feast table, the magnificent throne room of the underground kingdom, Pan and his fairy -- we've never seen things like this, and yet they have the timelessness of any fairy tale. And I will not soon forget the strange sight of a mandrake root in a bowl of milk.