It's a truism that fairy tales aren't so much about entertaining children as about leaving them with permanent emotional scars, but few of them can be as gruelling as Pan's Labyrinth, a fantasy-tinged drama which is like Alice In Wonderland with extra torture and amputation. It's set in northern Spain in 1944, when 11-year-old Ofelia (the magnetic Ivana Baquero) moves to a remote military base so that her widowed mother can be with her new husband, the supremely merciless Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). His job is to root a band of anti-Franco resistance fighters out of the adjacent forest, and it's a job he undertakes with bloodthirsty enthusiasm. But there may be a way for Ofelia to escape from her wicked stepfather. One night she visits an ancient maze in the base's grounds, where a faun tells her that she's actually a fairy princess, and that if she can complete three magical tasks she can reclaim her throne in the underworld.
The twist is that, for Ofelia, the supernatural world of monstrous toads and hairless demons is just as menacing as the natural world of fascist martinets. And, courtesy of some peerless, state-of-the-art effects, the fantasy segments look just as thrillingly dark and physical as the reality segments. It makes for a hair-raising atmosphere, and, for most of the way through, Pan's Labyrinth promises to be a classic.
It doesn't quite fulfil that promise. As in all of Guillermo del Toro's films, his visual inventiveness is let down by some confused, anti-climactic plotting, so that, in the end, the story's two strands don't tie together. And because Ofelia has very little to to do in either of them, you're left with the nagging sense that Pan's Labyrinth has plenty of supporting characters, but no leads. It's less of a labyrinth than a forest path, one that takes you through wonderful scenery but doesn't lead anywhere.
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