Mexican filmmakers may be doing for fantasy in film what Japan once did for animation. Just weeks after Alfonso Cuaron's visually stunning Children of Men comes Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno), easily one of the best fantasy films of the last five years, and one of the year's best films, period.
Like the 1973 film The Spirit of the Beehive, Pan shows a small child's fantasy life against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. It chronicles the tale of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a child who finds herself summoned into a fantasy world by Pan (Doug Jones, Abe Sapien in Del Toro's Hellboy), a faun whose gray skin and raspy voice bear more resemblance to Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko than that nice Mr. Tummus from The Chronicles of Narnia. As strange and threatening as this world is, the real world is just as nasty, as Ofelia is living in a house full of Francoist soldiers trying to smoke out rebels from the nearby woods. Their leader is Ofelia's stepfather Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), the sort of sadistic bastard who'll shoot someone, then pump more bullets in for good measure. And soon, both worlds threaten to erupt into violence.
Pan's premise has been done before in both film and prose, but Del Toro succeeds in making both the real and fantasy worlds equally compelling, anchored by the performances of Jones, Baquero and Lopez. Jones deserves special credit for his double duty as Pan and the Pale Man, a terrifying creation sure to become a favorite at Goth costume contests. Though there's some absolutely brutal violence (this film is not, repeat not, for children), it's done in service of the story, and the two worlds come together in a way that you don't quite expect. Pan's Labyrinth is a riveting experience, and hopefully a sign of more great fantasy films from Mexico in the future.