It should be understood, before embarking to see Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," that the film isn't so much a "fantasy set during the Spanish Civil War" but rather a story of the Spanish Civil War in which the fantastical imaginings (or maybe more?) of a young girl form one of the main plotlines. Even moreso than in del Toro's more definitively-supernatural "The Devil's Backbone," the film offers scenes of fairytale creatures and fantasy realms as welcome-intrusions into a main story which, while compelling, would be almost unbearably bleak without them.
The girl in question is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero,) who travels with her recently-widowed and uncomfortably-pregnant mother to the secluded mill/military outpost which is currently home to the mother's new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez.) A decorated member of the Fascist army of Franco's Spain, Vidal is a meticulous psychopath who's managed to parlay his inhuman tendencies into a position of great regard; "his" mill borders a forest occupied by the Rebels he is aiming to slowly and painfully gring into submission. Like most villians of his ilk, the Captain is also (poorly) working through some serious "daddy" issues, and wastes no time in making life suitably hellish for Ofelia - he's really only interested in her mother, or more precisely the innevitability of her giving him a son.
Left to her own devices, Ofelia escapes - maybe literally - into her books of fairytales, and has soon made contact with Pan, a half-man/half-goat "faun" inhabiting the decaying stone maze behind the mill. According to Pan, she is the reincarnated spirit of a long-lost Underworld Princess, and must complete a series of tests to gain re-entry to her kingdom. These "tests," and the strange realms they take Ofelia to, effectively comprise the "margins" of the film; while the "main" arc of the film focuses dually on some profoundly suspenseful wartime cloak-and-dagger business as rebels, soldiers and spies vie for control of the area and an unnervingly-intimate character study of the mad Captain Vidal himself.
And make no mistake, while the fantasy sequences provide memorable set peices of Ofelia confronting monsters like a giant toad and a ghastly creation I can only accurately describe as "The Jazz Hands Monster," del Toro and his narrative are centered on the very human monster driving it's events. Vidal is easily the "best" movie bad guy of the year, played by Lopez as so brazenly wicked that at times it feels as though the Labyrinth and it's mythical denizens exist mainly to justify him... as though a human character this demonic could only seem plausible in a world where frog monsters and fauns seem to be roaming about.
Much more cannot really be said of the plot, as it becomes both complicated and secret-packed fairly quickly, but it can be said in summation that the film is a masterpeice and very likely del Toro's best film to date. A great deal will be argued over as it's release continues, much of it dealing with the somewhat unanswerable question of what is actually going on in the film and which (if any) single genre it actually belongs in, but what I don't believe can be disputed is that del Toro is the best matchmaker of childlike fantasy with grownup bleakness since Terry Gilliam; not exactly trivial praise.
FINAL RATING: 9/10