American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Pan's Labyrinth" is one of the greatest of all fantasy films, even though it is anchored so firmly in the reality of war. On first viewing, it is challenging to comprehend a movie that on the one hand provides fauns and fairies, and on the other hand creates an inhuman sadist in the uniform of Franco's fascists. The fauns and fantasies are seen only by the 11-year-old heroine, but that does not mean she's "only dreaming;" they are as real as the fascist captain who murders on the flimsiest excuse. The coexistence of these two worlds is one of the scariest elements of the film; they both impose sets of rules that can get an 11-year-old killed.
"Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) took shape in the imagination of Guillermo del Toro as long ago as 1993, when he began to sketch ideas and images in the notebooks he always carries. The Mexican director responded strongly to the horror lurking under the surface of classic fairy tales and had no interest in making a children's film, but instead a film that looked horror straight in the eye. He also rejected all the hackneyed ideas for the creatures of movie fantasy and created (with his Oscar-winning cinematographer, art director and makeup people) a faun, a frog and a horrible Pale Man whose skin hangs in folds from his unwholesome body.
The time is 1944 in Spain. Bands of anti-Franco fighters hide in the forest, encouraged by news of the Normandy landings and other setbacks for Franco's friends Hitler and Mussolini. A troop of Franco's soldiers is sent to the remote district to hunt down the rebels, and is led by Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a sadist under cover as a rigid military man.
Commandeering a gloomy old mill as his headquarters, he moves in his new wife, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), who is very pregnant, and her daughter from her first marriage, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). The girl hates her stepfather, who indeed values Carmen only for breeding purposes. Soon after arriving, Vidal shoots dead two farmers whose rifles, they claim, are only for hunting rabbits. After they die, Vidal finds rabbits in their pouches. "Next time, search these assholes before wasting my time with them," he tells an underling. He orders Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), his chief servant, to cook the rabbits for dinner: "Maybe a stew." What a vile man.