Lost in the labyrinth

This political fairy tale is haunting, but it has little to say about the real world

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Mexico's Guillermo del Toro has carved out a cosy niche for himself making political-fantasy-horror-fables. In Pan's Labyrinth, the action is split between 1944 Spain and a seething, sticky underworld that may be a figment of the lonely young heroine's imagination. It's impossible to watch del Toro's film without recalling Victor Erice's 1973 masterpiece, The Spirit of the Beehive, which was also set in Spain immediately after the civil war, and concerned the effect watching Frankenstein had on two young sisters. Del Toro is nowhere near as nimble as Erice; the relationship between fantasy and reality in Pan's Labyrinth veers between tenuous and overstated, but rarely feels organic. Still, I hope this hybrid genre inspires other political directors to branch out. Nothing would improve Ken Loach's recent work more than, say, a shape-shifting mosquito or a giant vomiting toad.

Such exotic sights are seen through the eyes of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who is travelling to northern Spain with her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil). There, they are to live with the woman's new husband, Vidal (Sergi ópez). He is a captain in the Civil Guard, dedicated to crushing the maquis, freedom fighters still railing against Franco five years after the end of the war. When Ofelia extends a hand to greet her stepfather, he squashes her tiny fingers in his gloved fist. And he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he craves a son and heir, not a wife and a stepdaughter. After Carmen falls ill during pregnancy, Vidal instructs the doctor to save the baby first should things go wrong. Ofelia, who overhears this order, is aghast.

But all is not lost. The girl has recently befriended a large, horned faun named Pan (Doug Jones) who resides in a maze at the foot of the garden. Pan has some tips on nursing pregnant women back to health. Apparently, a mandrake root bathed in milk and blood, then placed under the bed, does the trick nicely. They don't tell you that in prenatal class.

Ofelia's dire domestic situation justifies a retreat into a fantasy life, where moral instruction is clearer and the future more hopeful. But the underworld into which she ventures is far from comforting. For starters, there's Pan, an alternative father figure to Vidal, but a no less mercurial one. With his hooded eyes and blond tresses he's a dead ringer for 1970s prog-rocker Rick Wakeman - what he proposes to Ofelia is almost as frightening as one of Wakeman's keyboard solos. It transpires that the girl is actually a princess who has strayed from her magical domain, to which she can only return after completing three hazardous tasks. Which is where the giant vomiting toad comes in.

Pan's Labyrinth has the makings of a haunting modern fairy tale. In Vidal, it has a wicked stepfather who is all the more fearsome for the traces of vulnerability still visible beneath his sadism - his social awkwardness at a dinner party, or his strange attachment to a cracked pocket-watch.

Del Toro has fun conjuring a murky underworld as a counterpoint to the brutalities occurring in real life. Down there, you can make out the glistening shells of scurrying insects, and hear the thrumming of unseen wings. The film's undisputed highlight is Ofelia's encounter with an emaciated ghoul who keeps his eyeballs on a dinner plate until the time comes to plug them into the sockets in his palms. If he tells you to talk to the hand, he's not kidding.

But we are never allowed to get truly lost in Pan's Labyrinth. The fantasy sequences are fetching when they should be intoxicating, while the scenes above ground are largely prosaic. The villains stomp around performing arbitrary acts of cruelty, while the rebels gather in the woods in an attractive assortment of browns and greens from this season's Noble Peasant collection. Since his startling 1993 debut Cronos, del Toro has been an enthusiastic tour guide through fantastic realms. But before his next film, he needs to acquire a more intimate knowledge of the real world.

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