- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

It might be hard to believe, but the man behind such testosterone-fueled comic-book adaptations as 2002’s “Blade II” and 2004’s “Hellboy” has crafted what is almost the best film of 2006.

Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro has taken the lessons learned from his work on genre films and used his technical mastery to very serious effect in his latest film, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (“El Laberinto del Fauno”).

The action takes place in 1944. Spain’s civil war is over, but the repression has barely begun. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) has been posted to a remote area in northern Spain, where he and his men are charged with putting down a group of republican rebels. He’s eventually joined by his new (and pregnant) wife, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), and her young daughter, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero).

Ofelia has taken a dislike to her new stepfather — and it’s not hard to see why. At first, Vidal just seems cold. He talks proudly of his unborn son, and when someone asks, “What makes you so sure the baby is a male?” he replies, “Don’t [mess] with me.” It’s soon clear that he cares more for this possible son than he does for his ill wife.

But this slightly sinister world becomes darker still when violence suddenly erupts. Acts of bloodshed in this movie are relatively few and far between. When they do occur, it’s always to show character — usually that of the depraved Vidal.

Vidal isn’t the only avatar of evil here, however. Whether corrupted by Franco’s fascism or simply power, many Spaniards have lost their humanity. Even a priest is heard to remark, “God has already saved their souls. What happens to their bodies hardly matters to him.”

Ofelia makes up a mythology to deal with the horror around her. Immersed in fairy tales even before she arrives, the girl is quick to follow a dragonfly-cum-fairy into the forest, where she finds the labyrinth of the title. It’s guarded by a sinister faun (“Hellboy’s” Doug Jones) who tells the girl she’s the long-lost daughter of a king. To get back to her magical kingdom — and attain immortality — she must complete three tasks.

Thus Ofelia enters an underworld that is the most imaginative creation of the year. The creatures that populate “Pan’s Labyrinth” are astounding. The most extraordinary is the Pale Man (also played by Mr. Jones), whose eyes are contained in the stigmata on his hands.

Such creations are given a glorious background. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is a beautiful film, shot in rich, warm hues. Spanish composer Javier Navarrete’s winding score does it justice.

With such inventive things to hear and see, you might almost forget the real people at the heart of this fantasy. While every member of the Spanish cast puts in impressive work, it’s Ivana who steals the show. Only 11 years old when the film was made, her portrayal of a very brave little girl is completely believable. Ofelia is no saint — when she disregards the faun’s instructions, the consequences are dire. That only makes this innocent more realistic.

With his dark fairy tale for adults that explores good and evil, childhood, imagination and politics in the tradition of Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro has made a masterpiece whose images are not soon forgotten.

****

TITLE: “Pan’s Labyrinth”

RATING: R (graphic violence and some language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Key makeup artistry by Jose Quetglas. Special makeup effects by Arjen Tuiten. Special effects supervision by Reyes Abades. Visual effects supervision by Everett Burrell and Edward Irastorza. Creatures by Sergio Sandoval. In Spanish with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

WEB SITE: www.panslabyrinth.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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