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A STRANGE FAIRY TALE, INDEED.

Byline: Glenn Whipp Film Critic

Guillermo del Toro's ``Pan's Labyrinth'' is an adult fairy tale where fantasy and reality are indistinguishable and can be read either literally or as metaphor. But del Toro is very much pushing the ``either'' in the either/or equation, blurring the lines beautifully to show that the boundaries between what we see as reality and make-believe don't exist at all.

It's del Toro's sixth and most successful movie to date and can be seen as something of a sibling to his previous career best, 2001's ``The Devil's Backbone.'' Both films are set during the Spanish Civil War and feature children who venture into magical worlds to retreat from the peril created by evil father figures.

``Pan's Labyrinth'' builds on ``Backbone.'' Del Toro's confidence shows and the result is a story that feels as rich as the classic myths it draws on.

As the movie opens in 1944 Spain, 12-year-old Ofelia (superb Spanish actress Ivana Baquero) travels with her very pregnant mother, Carmen (Adriana Gil), to the countryside estate of Ofelia's new stepfather, the fascist Capt. Vidal (Sergi Lopez).

Ofelia clutches her prized possessions -- books of myths and fairy tales -- even as her mother tells her it's time to cast them aside and face the real world.

When we meet the monstrous Vidal, it's easy to understand why Ofelia might want to hold dear to fantasy. Vidal isn't interested in his stepdaughter and barely has time for Carmen.

All he wants is the child inside Carmen, which he is sure is a boy.

Vidal's other obsession is to ruthlessly, indiscriminately eradicate the remaining Republican resistance to Franco's regime.

So down the immaculately realized rabbit's hole Ofelia goes, where she meets an untrustworthy faun (Doug Jones), a gnarly creature bearing no resemblance to the happy little hoofed guy from ``The Chronicles of Narnia.'' The faun tells Ofelia that she is really a princess, but, to prove it beyond a doubt, she must complete three tasks, each one more dangerous than the last. (And the first one is no pushover.)

As the film shuttles between the two worlds, del Toro introduces a host of creatures and situations straight from fairy tales and children's literature, all of which are filtered through his own keen sense of magic and horror. This isn't kids' stuff, though adventuresome teens would find plenty here to engage them. It's dark poetry set to startling images, a one-of-a-kind nightmare that has a soaring, spiritual center. It's not to be missed.

Glenn Whipp, (818) 713-3672

glenn.whipp@dailynews.com

PAN'S LABYRINTH - Four stars

(R: graphic violence, some language)

Starring: Sergi Lopez, Ivana Baquero.

Director: Guillermo del Toro.

Running time: 1hr. 52 min.

Playing: Pacific's Galleria Stadium 16 in Sherman Oaks; Pacific's Paseo Stadium 14 in Pasadena; Pacific's ArcLight in Hollywood; AMC Century City 15; AMC Santa Monica 7. Expands Jan. 2.

In a nutshell: Adult fairy tale that beautifully breaks down the walls between fantasy and reality. Not to be missed. In Spanish with English subtitles.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

In her fantasy world, 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) learns from a faun-like creature (Doug Jones) that she is a princess, but she must complete a series of daunting tasks to prove her status, in the adult fairy tale ``Pan's Labyrinth.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 29, 2006
Words:544
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