NOT ALL fairy tales need to be mushy.

The hodgepodge of historical brutality and mind-boggling creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth successfully transcends the average once-upon-a-time narrative into a classic masterpiece. Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro brews bits of mythology, history, and fantasy in this internationally acclaimed film.

Set in 1944 in a Madrid countryside, years after tyrant Francisco Franco and his despotic sentry quelled rebel uprisings during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth juxtaposes a gothic fairy tale with this dark epoch. The story unfurls in the eyes of Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a dreamy, young girl mired in the make-believe world of fairies and fables. As they become uprooted from their tranquil abode, Ofelia and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), arrive at an abandoned mill turned military outpost commanded by Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a sadistic fascist and Ofelia’s stern stepfather. In from the aftermath of his father’s death, Captain Vidal takes out his frustrations in two ways: by hunting down Republican rebels and by keeping a hawk’s eye at Carmen’s womb—his own son. The poor Ofelia cannot help but submit to the captain’s stringent rules just like the housemaid Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and Carmen’s doctor, Ferreiro (Alex Angulo), who are both underground Republicans secretly buttressing their master’s enemies.

In the midst of the arduous pregnancy of her mother, the cold-blooded, evil doings of her stepfather, and the marauding guerillas in the woods, Ofelia finds solace in fairy tales, which eventually consume her. As she lulls her mother to sleep, Ofelia discovers that the outlandish insect she meets in the woods is indeed magical. The fairy-like creature lures her deep inside the garden labyrinth located near the captain’s terrain. Out of the darkness emerges the faun, Pan (Doug Jones), a lofty, goatish creature with stealthy eyes and ominous horns and hooves. The beast tells Ofelia of her fate as Moanna, the reincarnated princess of the underworld. The girl tries to fulfill three tasks to redeem her destiny as the royal heir. Guided by a charmed sketchbook, Ofelia faces her worst magical and real nightmares as her innocence gets sandwiched between the political and military conflict and the labyrinth’s unfathomable magical realm.

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What separates this adult fairy tale from the rest of the contemporary fantasy pictures is the absence of “sugar-coated” reality. Right off the bat, the movie makes no attempt to hide or tone down the brutality of the period it is set. Del Toro shows no reluctance in highlighting harrowing scenes of torture and violence toward the guerrillas.

However, some shifting of scenes from Vidal’s cruel mission to Ofelia’s dream-like adventure is so loosely strewn together that the movie tends to lose focus. One slack transition is when Pan besmirches Ofelia’s dream to complete her final task, the creature disappears for a long time and only returns toward the ending. Pan’s departure almost made the character lose its vitality in the story, and the faun’s comeback is abrupt toward the film’s closing.

The screen texture is very crisp and sophisticated, better appreciated in the forest landscape shots and even in Baquero’s close-up scenes. The movie earned three Oscars for best cinematography, best makeup, and best art direction. During its premiere in the 2006 Cannes Film Festival last October, Del Toro’s sixth film received an overwhelming 22-minute standing ovation.

Pan’s Labyrinth’s success is a testament that fairy tales need not cloak what is ugly or even what is vicious. All the more that there should be a need to expose these aspects for viewers to easily grasp the lessons such stories want to convey.

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