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Child's Fairy Tale 'Pan's Labyrinth' Provides Refuge in War

A child's fairy tale fantasy provides her refuge from the ravages of war in a vividly imaginative film by Mexican-born writer-director Guillermo del Toro. Alan Silverman has a look at "Pan's Labyrinth."

"It is an ancient labyrinth" the housekeeper explains to young Ofelia who has wandered off and discovered the overgrown stone gate. She gently warns the girl to be careful " might get lost." Ofelia already feels lost. It is Spain in 1944. Her widowed mother is pregnant with the child of a Captain in Franco's Army. He has brought them to the remote countryside to live in a commandeered estate while his troops put down the remnants of rebel forces. Ofelia escapes from the brutal realities of the Civil War by reading fables she is more than curious when she is awakened on one their first night there by the fluttering of wings.

"Mother, wake up ... there is something in the room." But her mother is too sound asleep to see the tiny fairy that alights on Ofelia's shoulder. It beckons and she follows ...into the labyrinth where a stone staircase has appeared. She tiptoes down as it spirals into a deep chamber where, to her amazement, she finds herself face to face with a creature - half man, half goat.

"Who are you?" she asks. "I have been known by many names," he answers in an ancient, forgotten accent ... "names that are remembered only by the trees." He is a faun, he explains, and declares that she is not the mortal Ofelia, but actually Princess Moanna, the long-lost daughter of the King of the Underworld. And so begins her perilous adventure, stealing away every moment she can to learn if her destiny is truly at the end of the dark staircase.

It all comes from the imagination of writer-director Guillermo del Toro, who hedges his answer to the question of whether the world within the labyrinth is simply Ofelia's fantasy. "I think it exists myself. I think it's real ...but that's me. It doesn't need to be the 'official playbook' for the film. I believe the girl does not escape to it because it is almost as uncomfortable a place as reality. If I made it a happy 'singing chipmunk, bluebird singing' kind of place then, yes, you could say she escapes to that; but she's actually finding a place where she can deal with the realities outside and within herself," he says.

"Of course there are two worlds. You can see the toughness of the civil war and the fantasy, which are two separate worlds," says young Spanish actress Ivana Baquero, who plays 11-year-old Ofelia. "One of the pretty aspects of this story is that you can choose whether you want to believe she really sees that or she imagines it. As Ivana, I think she really sees it. She's creating this world, not only to escape herself, but to make other people happy and for war to finish."

Ofelia reads from the magical book that the faun gave her: "use the chalk to draw a doorway on the wall of your room." Beyond that doorway is one of the three dangerous tasks he has set for her to prove that she is worthy to re-join her father at the throne of the underworld.

"You must complete three tasks before the moon is full," the faun Pan intones. He is portrayed by American Doug Jones, beneath elaborate makeup that took five hours each day to apply. Jones, a gifted physical actor, has brought a variety of other-worldly creatures to life on film: The thing about 'El Fauno' or 'Pan' was that we have the goat image to go with on that, so (director) Guillermo del Toro said it would be a good thing if I had a look at farm animals to see how their hind quarters move, how they shake off flies and things like that. There are a couple of times in the movie where you can see I do a kind of shudder that works its way up my back ... and there's the way the hooves stomp around and kick up dust," he says.

Jones also plays the 'pale man' who menaces Ofelia on one of her fantastic adventures. As writer-director del Toro points out, there is danger for the child within "Pan's Labyrinth;" so even with its fairy tale elements he says the film is really about the impact of war on people of every age. "It is beyond children in a chronological sense. I think we are killing a lot of the innocents. It is the 'wild west' all of a sudden and I think there is a lot of innocence being lost. I think this is a very intimate moment of humanity where we need to concern ourselves with this sort of spiritual questions. I think they go beyond the political," he says.

The cast of "Pan's Labyrinth" includes Spanish screen stars Ariadna Gil, Maribel Verdu and Sergi Lopez. The cinematographer is Mexican-born Guillermo Navarro, a frequent collaborator with director del Toro; the musical score is by Spanish composer Javier Navarette.