Fairy tales are stories with a million and one lives: whether they’re used to scare children into obedience or to plumb certain adult fears that aren’t easily expressed aloud, they have a way of surviving, and regenerating, across centuries. Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the greatest fantasy films ever made, an adult fairy tale of both twisted-root darkness and vibrant, shimmering light. It’s an allegory, set in Franco’s Spain a few years after that country’s civil war, but Del Toro has no interest in heavy-handed symbolism. Instead, he presents us with images that reach us in a place beyond words. There’s a faceless, amphibian-like creature with wrinkly alabaster skin, its eyes located in the palms of its hands instead of in its head, a nearly incomprehensible being who, in this dream universe, seems unnervingly real. We also meet an elegant faun (played by Del Toro regular Doug Jones), with curly ram’s horns and piercing, wide-set eyes, who tells the movie’s troubled young heroine (Ivana Baquero) that he believes she is really a princess, though she must undertake three dangerous tasks to prove it. These are the wondrous, and sometimes fearsome, creatures of Del Toro’s imagination, and he shares them with us in this somber, lovely movie—a gift so glorious and indelible that it not only tiptoes through our waking hours, but also haunts our sleep.
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