Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

Guillermo del Toro's dark fairy tale revolves around a girl's retreat from the harshness of her life into a fantasy world of mythical creatures and magical quests, only to find that her refuge is as brutal as reality.

Spain, 1944: Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) buries her nose in a treasured book of fairy tales as she and her fragile, pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), are driven through the Spanish countryside, en route to join Carmen's new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), an officer in General Francisco Franco's army. Though the Spanish civil war is officially over, pockets of guerrilla resistance to Franco's fascist regime persist in rural areas, and Vidal's unit is charged with routing insurgents by any means necessary. For Carmen, a near-destitute widow when Vidal proposed, the marriage represents a last chance at security. But Ofelia quietly resists Vidal at every turn; he prizes the military virtues of punctuality, obedience and decorum above all else, and she consistently fails to conform, preferring to wander the woods and indulge her flights of fancy rather than play the dutiful daughter. And for all her apparent dreaminess, Ofelia sees through Vidal's mask of civilization to the amoral sadist who tortures suspected rebels and cares less about Carmen than the unborn child he's convinced is a son.

Ofelia finds an ally in housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), but she has only so much attention to spare for the captain's unhappy new daughter; Mercedes is secretly diverting military supplies to the rebels — who include her brother — and a moment of carelessness could condemn them all. Left to her own devices, Ofelia discovers an intricate stone labyrinth in the woods, where the goat-god Pan (Doug Jones) lurks. Perhaps intuiting Ofelia's dearest wish (one shared by many youngsters whose lives fall short of their imaginings), Pan confides his belief that she's no ordinary girl. But to prove his suspicion that she's Princess Moanna, whose father is King of the Underworld, Ofelia must successfully complete three dangerous tasks. These tasks take her beyond the realm of sleep and into the twilight where mandrake roots wriggle like infants, a hideous toad squats beneath the roots of a gnarled tree, and the nightmarish Pale Man, an attenuated ghoul with eyes in his palms, waits for little girls who ignore mythic prohibitions.

Del Toro understands the shadowy power of folk stories in which wicked stepparents dispose of unwanted youngsters, where witches and demons lurk behind kindly faces, and where the end of childhood is paved with blood and shattered illusions. His film ranks with the best examinations of children's inner lives, but be warned: Its haunting insights are best left to adults.