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Pan’s Labyrinth is one fairy tale whose characters won’t accompany Happy Meals. Not for the kiddies is writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece, an intricate epic in which an 11-year-old girl’s escapist fantasies are set against the reality of fascist rule in 1944 Spain. For Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the tyranny begins at home: She and her pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), have moved to a rural military post to live with her stepfather, Capitán Vidal (Sergi López), an officer in Franco’s army. A kill-first-and-question later type, the captain values Carmen only for the boy he’s sure she’s carrying and is openly disdainful of his bookworm stepdaughter, who refuses to call him father despite her submissive and sick mother’s argument that “it’s only a word.” So Ofelia, though often scared silly in the captain’s creaky old house, welcomes the way-more-terrifying adventures she’s invited on after she excitedly pegs a praying mantis as a fairy. Like del Toro’s previous film, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth is painted in shades of red, bleak, and blue, the latter suggesting a perpetual twilight as Ofelia meets and obeys the orders of a monsterish faun (Doug Jones) who says that, upon completion of his tasks, a royal fate awaits her in an underground realm. The movie is brutally violent, chillingly beautiful, and utterly original—del Toro, in one of his nightmarish villains, has rendered one of the most memorable images to hit a screen—as it follows the struggles of good versus evil in both worlds. López, too, is unforgettable as the frighteningly unflinching captain, his dark eyes occasionally belying flickers of doubt in his character’s otherwise square-jawed, stern façade as he, say, confronts Ofelia or realizes a political resistance has developed within his own home. But this is Ofelia’s story, and Baquero is a worthy anchor: Old enough to rebel yet still quite naive, wide-eyed, and desperate for grown-up guidance, Baquero’s heroine is contradictory and expressive as she grasps for a magical ending to her real-life unhappiness. Her books have prepared her for the fantastic underworld she meets here; thank God there hasn’t been a film that’s done the same for us.