What do you say about the best movie you saw all year? It's happened to all of us: that rare movie that completely knocks you over and blows you away, that takes you somewhere else for two hours or so and returns you wide-eyed and slackjawed, leaving the theater quietly and slightly stunned at having to return to mundane life. How can you write clearly and critically when you just want to say, "Damn, that was good."

I thought I might like Pan's Labyrinth (aka El Laberinto del Fauno) but then two days before I saw the movie at Fantastic Fest, I thought I might love Tideland and was sadly disappointed. Tideland may have cinematic merit but it is not lovable and it does tend to smack you in the face with some very repellent things. People do repellent things in Pan's Labyrinth, but you're not pulled out of the movie by sheer disgust -- you remain involved in the world of the film.
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Pan's Labyrinth combines reality and fantasy in a way that did in fact remind me of Terry Gilliam, as in Brazil or The Fisher King. The young girl Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a great reader of fairy tales, although her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gill) tries to dissuade her from reading the stories, claiming Sofia is getting too old for such things. When Sofia and her pregnant mother move to a Spanish military camp to live with her mother's new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), Ofelia fancies that she can see woodland fairies, and is drawn toward the estate's overgrown labyrinth garden. In the garden, Ofelia encounters Pan (Doug Jones), a faun who tells her that she must be the Princess of the Underworld in disguise, and sets her three increasingly difficult tasks to prove that she is truly the Princess.

While attempting these magical tasks, however, Ofelia also has to deal with the cold reality of her situation. Pan's Labyrinth is set in Spain in the early 1940s during the Fascist regime, after the Spanish Civil War. Sofia's stepfather Vidal is a strict military man who is determined to hunt down any remaining resistance fighters in the area. Vidal is also greatly concerned with the imminent birth of his son, to the point where he cares more about the child than the mother ... and not at all for Ofelia. With her mother confined to bed, Ofelia's only non-magical comfort comes from the housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), who has a secret agenda of her own.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone, Hellboy) balances the harsh realities of the military atmosphere with Ofelia's fantastic adventures, and keeps us wondering whether Ofelia is imagining Pan and her fairytale-like quest, or if these creatures do in fact exist within the film. Nothing seems implausible within the universe of the movie, whether Ofelia is drawing a chalk outline to another world or Vidal is preparing to brutally torture his captives. The characters are well rounded: Vidal has his nearly human side, Pan is a capricious creature (he would eat Mr. Tumnus for lunch), and even minor characters have some depth and dimension, like Dr. Ferreiro. Twelve-year-old Ivana Baquero is excellent and entirely believable as Ofelia, and Sergi Lopez is also notable as Vidal.

Pan's Labyrinth is in Spanish and subtitled, but it's not difficult to watch even if you're not fond of subtitles, because the visuals are so much stronger and more compelling than the dialogue. The movie utilizes universal fairy-tale themes: the quest of three tasks, a golden key (guarded by a giant toad), an underworld feast that visitors cannot touch and the innocent young girl at the center of it all. You could probably watch this movie with the subtitles off entirely. It's a gorgeous film that ought to be seen on the largest screen possible -- some of the visual effects might be lost on a smaller screen, so try to catch it in a theater.

I was worried that my sketchy knowledge of the historical setting of the film might prove a liability. All I could remember about the Spanish Civil War was that Humphrey Bogart's character in Casablanca fought on the losing side, which was considered romantic and heroic by the good guys in that film. However, del Toro manages to simplify the situation and make it universal, without patronizing the audience. We don't need to know the details about the political situation; Vidal's ruthless attitude immediately shows us where our sympathies should lie within the film.

Pan's Labyrinth naturally reminded me of other movies that incorporate fairy tales and magical realism -- but it also recalled one of my favorite films, The Wild Bunch, for reasons I can't precisely articulate. Perhaps it was the character of Vidal, who would be quite at home in any Peckinpah film. Or perhaps it was the ending, which is oddly reminiscent of the last scene of The Wild Bunch. Most probably, it's because I was so completely absorbed by both films. Damn, they're both good.

[For another viewpoint on Pan's Labyrinth, check out Kim Voynar's review from TIFF.]