It is 1944 and the Spanish Civil War has ended. Nevertheless, the peasants still rebel from the rural areas.
A small family moves into an old mill house in Spain's countryside after the rise of Fascism. Captain Vidal, a brutal Fascist officer has been sent to quell rebels in this remote area, and has brought his fragile and pregnant wife Carmen and her 12-year-old daughter Ofelia with him.
Ofelia's mother constantly chides her for being too old for fairy tales, but the little girl's innocence and imagination refuses to be subdued despite the horrors of war and rebellion around her. Perhaps it is this cruel environment, which forces her to retreat into this mystical world. Instead of a large praying mantis, she sees a fairy.
Neglected and disliked by her unfeeling and cruel step-father, Ofelia discovers a ruined labyrinth beside their old home. At night, she follows a fairy into the labyrinth and meets the guardian of the labyrinth - a Faun, who claims she is the Princess Moanna, the lost daughter of the Underworld's king. Her true father had commissioned many portals to be made on Earth, in the hopes Princess Moanna would find her way home to her Underworld Kingdom. But she had to prove she had not become too mortal and was given the Book of Crossroads, which would show her what 3 tasks she had to perform. (highlight the below to see what the 3 tasks are)
The first task was to make a giant toad swallow 3 magic stones and retrieve a golden key. The toad lived deep in the roots of an ancient fig tree, which was dying due to the toad.
The second task was to take the key into the lair of the Pale Man, an inhuman creature which eats children, to unlock 1 of 3 tiny cupboards to retrieve the treasure inside. The Faun gave Ofelia 3 items to aid her in this task: 3 fairies to guide her, an hourglass and a piece of chalk. He also warned her to eat or drink nothing while in the Pale Man's lair, as it may cost her her life.
We all know how often that piece of fairy tale advice is heeded.
The third task was to take her new baby brother to the Faun at the centre of the labyrinth, where she was told the blood of an innocent would open the portal.
This movie is truely a work of art and the influence from Grimm's fairy tales is deliciously tangible. But this makes it no fairy tale for children. The cruelty that is portrayed in the characters' real world is more shockingly violent than that of the dreamland.
I actually winced out loud more than once. The source of the violence is Captain Vidal, who makes it clear throughout the film that his only concern is for his unborn son and his ideals for a united Spain. So unyielding is his commitment, that when questioned by the doctor why he believes his unborn child would be male, Captain Vidal snorts at the doctor and replies: "Don't fuck with me."
Which is no wonder Ofelia refuses to call his man 'Father', despite how much she loves her mother who begs her repeatedly to do so. Instead she forms a strong connection to the housekeeper, Mercedes. Mercedes is also a Republican sympathizer, who steals supplies and ferries messages/information from the Captain's house to the rebels in the surrounding forest in the cover of night.
This movie does not have a truely happy ending.
But neither do most true fairy tales.