Pitch-dark fable that takes place in 1944 Spain, shortly after Franco's Fascists won the civil war. A young girl is taken to a castle-like structure in the forest where she is to live with her pregnant mother and her stepfather, a particularly brutal captain in the Fascist regime who is overseeing the obliteration of the last few Republican partisans in the area. The imaginative little girl soon finds an escape into a fantasy land of fairies and fauns (the literal English translation of the Spanish title is "The Labyrinth of the Faun"), but it is a domain as evil and as treacherous as the real world outside her bedroom.
Although the advertisements would have you believe that a great deal of the film takes place in this alternate universe, in fact it's really one part fantasy to perhaps four parts reality - not unlike its closest cinematic cousin, Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures. But the similarities end there: writer/director del Toro is not filming a true story, but rather creating a parable for the value of civil disobedience and the strength of the human will. That this parable is told via some gruesome scenes of vile imaginary monsters and an even more vile human one, with many violent and even disgusting images that are definitely not for children, is simply part of del Toro's vision.
I certainly liked Pan's Labyrinth; it's an imaginative story and Sergi Lopez makes for a memorably nasty villain. But there is a key plot hole - and if you haven't seen the film yet, I urge you now to stop reading this review, for I'm going to discuss it. Without giving too much away, there is a scene late in the film where Character A does some vicious - and well-deserved - things with a knife to Character B. And then Character A simply walks away, allowing Character B to go mad and seek revenge. With all that is at stake between the heroic Republicans and the loathsome Fascists, and given the tragic results that ultimately stem from this decision, it is ridiculous that Character A would not have simply killed Character B. I can only guess that del Toro avoided the logical choice in order to create a martyr to serve his story's themes. Anyway, that scene stands out like a sore thumb, but there are a few other confusions and contrivances which I also can't overlook, and which took me out of the film.