I have to admit, I love this movie pretty shamelessly, so everything I’m about to say will likely carry a certain amount of bias.
While I’m definitely charmed by the visual elements, my favorite aspect of the film is its treatment of duality. I love the way disparate stories run parallel to each other and are woven together gradually so that elements begin to blur and converge.
Throughout the film, the young character of Ofelia navigates the line between her own dangerous fantasy world and the stark reality of a war-torn and volatile Spain. Her forays into Faerieland have nothing on the tyrannies of her new stepfather, as he strives to eradicate the remaining insurgents who populate the hills surrounding his military compound.
The terror of Ofelia’s fairytale is raw and grisly, and quite powerful in its own right. However, it’s tempered by the fact that her day-to-day reality is far more hazardous than the machinations of fauns and pixies.
Even the most horrifying fantasy creatures pale in contrast to the rampant fanaticism on both sides of the local political scene. As Ofelia strives to accomplish arbitrary magical tasks, the adults around her are absorbed in doing whatever they perceive to be necessary to their respective causes, regardless of cost.
As the two stories progress, they become inextricable, serving to underline each other again and again, until it’s difficult to say which motif is most horrifying (sadistic fascists, facial mutilation, baby-eating monsters, etc.). Each plot thread’s effectiveness is increased by its proximity to the other.
Pan’s Labyrinth bears a lot of the hallmarks that have historically been at the center of traditional fairytales—elements of violence, sacrifice, and brutality. However, it’s the unsettling echoes of these things in the “real world” that give them their full measure of power.