Ask someone today about fairy tales, and they’ll probably describe simple children’s stories; fantasies about princesses and monsters which contain no real sense of threat or danger – just little fictions to help babies sleep at night. The prince will always save the day, the witch will always be vanquished, and the kingdom will always be restored. But what people forget is just how dark and disturbing fairy tales actually are – this is largely thanks to the filtering of the Disney Corporation, which works like a sieve straining out the more unpleasant aspects of its mythological or legendary source material. And so people forget the ugly sisters in Cinderella chopping up their own feet up, they forget that the little mermaid dies, they forget that fairy tales are often frightening stories designed to scare children and not to sooth them. Del Toro, however, remembers, and so we have Pan’s Labyrinth – a fantastic throwback to the folklore of old – a fairy tale which predates Disney, built on horror without hope, in which everyone may not quite live happily ever after. Pan’s Labyrinth strives to remind its audience how a fairy tale should really be told – bringing the horror back to the genre, but also the beauty.The film is set in 1944, in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, in which Franco’s military hunt for the scattered, forest-dwelling remains of the Spanish Maquis. In charge of one such outpost is the cruel Captain Vidal (López), a man who treats the rebels like animals and wishes to annihilate them all. We begin the film with Ofelia (Baquero) travelling through the woods to live with Vidal at his post – her heavily pregnant mother having recently married the man. As Ofelia’s mother becomes increasingly ill, and the rebel forces increasingly powerful, Ofelia is left alone in an alien and hopeless war torn world, with nothing but her fantasy stories to keep her company. However, drawn by fairies into an ancient labyrinth, Ofelia meets a wise, decrepit faun, who tells her the amazing truth – she is not Ofelia at all, but instead, she is the reincarnated form of Moanna – princess of the underworld, whom the faun has been waiting on for centuries. In order to prove her worth and return to her kingdom, however, Ofelia must perform three tasks – strange trials which will push the girl to her limits. The audience watch as Ofelia begins her private quest, all with the echoes of war around her.Del Toro spent years constructing Pan’s Labyrinth, and his love for the movie shows in every shot. In terms of cinematography, the film is beautiful – from the lush, dense forests to the ancient pagan structures wrapped in vines. The fantasy elements in particular look amazing, rich in colour and detail, and there’s a nice contrast between the stunning underworld areas and the grey, wet military outposts, which really illustrates the difference between the film’s fantasy and its harsh reality. It really is an incredible film to look at and one full of imagination too. The faun – played theatrically by Doug Jones – is unlike anything ever seen before. He’s a rotting monster, seemingly carved out of earth and tree bark, and so unusual that the audience can’t quite work out whether he’s friend or foe. Del Toro knows that the best fairy tales are built on wonder and terror, and the film plays to this, particularly in the movie-stealing Pale Man scene, which is not unlike being trapped in a nightmare, and stands as one the scariest and most surreal cinematic sequences of the decade. The film certainly works as a darker fairy tale, and can almost be viewed as a live action version of Spirited Away, or a modern retelling of Alice in Wonderland. It’s just nice to see a film with so much imagination on display.Part of the film’s appeal is that the audience never know if the fantasy elements are real, or merely the fairy tale inspired escapism of a scared little girl. Is Ofelia’s fantasy literal or metaphorical? Sadly this idea works better in theory than in practice, and the fantasy elements overshadow the rest of the film. It’s unfortunate that the war story sections are slightly by the numbers – there’s nothing here the audience hasn’t seen before, which is shame. Del Toro never makes the two halves of his film gel together; we’re watching two movies here, not a complete whole, which means the movie stops and starts a lot.The war story also isn’t helped by López, who plays Vidal as a cartoon character. He is menacing, yes, but there’s no humanity within the role, and he becomes silly towards the end of the movie. The rest of the cast however are much stronger, with Verdú stealing scenes Mercedes, who comes across as painfully broken but also strong, compassionate and resourceful. It’s hard not to root for Mercedes, and the audience really do care about her fate. Special mention must be given to Baquero – for such a young, unknown actress, she really holds her own, managing to be believable, tragic and complex all at once. There’s a hopeless quality to her performance, and we really do feel her isolation and loneliness. What’s fantastic too is that she essentially plays two roles and the audience is given the choice to follow either – is she the courageous Moanna or the deluded, scared Ofelia? The best of example of this comes with her smile at the film’s very end, which can be read either way and sums up the entire film.Pan’s Labyrinth is a stunning little fairy tale, a film of amazing moments and ideas, which may not quite come together as a whole, but which works as a feast for the imagination, with a childlike sense of fear and wonder. Whilst the film isn’t perfect, it’s close, and certainly something a jaded, Disney-fed audience needs to see. Original and wonderful, more movies should be like this.