Balancing childlike enchantment with grown-up horror isn't easy, and for a good long stretch at the start, Guillermo del Toro's populist fable Pan's Labyrinth seems bound to fumble. Set just after the Spanish Civil War, the film stars Ivana Baquero as a pre-teen girl who prefers to disappear into books, especially when her pregnant, widowed mother remarries and moves them to a remote mountain outpost to live with the ultimate wicked stepfather: a cruel army captain played by Sergi López. Throughout Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro cuts between López's attempts to smoke out the remaining rebels camped in the surrounding forest, and Baquero's retreat into a fantasy world where she's a reincarnated princess, asked by a towering faun to carry out three tasks and thereby complete her transformation into an immortal.
Obviously, parallels develop between the war story and the fantasy story. Both are about quixotic quests and demanding authority figures, and both have their share of magic keys and special potions. But for most of its first hour, Pan's Labyrinth doesn't fit together neatly. The fantasy sequences are wildly stylized and simplistically plotted, while the war sequences are bloody and brutal. But in the second hour, the stories begin to merge, as Baquero's tasks start intersecting López's mission, and she has to decide whether she can trust the creepy-looking mythological creature who's telling her what to do.
It would be a mistake to read Pan's Labyrinth simply as a heroine's journey, with a little girl representing all the Spaniards who stood up to the fascists. This isn't really a movie about one person or one historical moment; it's about the larger question of how history judges what we do. The republicans lost the Spanish Civil War, yet even though history is written by the winners, almost no one thinks of the fascists as the good guys in that story. In Pan's Labyrinth, Baquero disobeys and makes mistakes, but she's still the heroine. In the movie's moving final lines, del Toro shows a flower blooming, and holds Baquero up as an inspiration to anyone who feels that the world has gotten too dark for any light to break through. He's deliberate in getting there, but after two hours of dazzlingly fantastical images and stomach-turning gore, del Toro winds around, and finds his story's center.