Faun and Games 

"Pan's Labyrinth" pits ancient fairy tales against trying modern times.

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On the same day it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, "Pan's Labyrinth" was still the highest-ranked movie on Metacritic.com, a Web site that surveys the film criticism of publications across the country. This was the same day that "Little Miss Sunshine" was nominated for Best Picture.

When a film that is modest at best is hoisted to such lofty heights, you know the keepers of such scores are reaching to the bottom to find something worth talking about it. These are times when pretty flights of fancy come off like genius works of art.

Such is the case with "Labyrinth," a tale of Spaniards living under Francisco Franco's fascist regime. Right around the time the Allies are planning to storm the beaches of Normandy, a little girl named Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives by car with her mother (Ariadna Gil) at a rural supply station kept by Vidal, an army captain (Sergi L¢pez). This is Spain after its civil war, but guerrilla resistance fighters still hide in the surrounding hills, hunted by Vidal while trying to steal the food and medicine he guards. Ofelia is caught in the middle. Motivated mostly by the fanciful stories in her fairy-tale books, she'd rather run around in the lush forest hunting sprites, but she must instead help her mother. Mom is preggers, and Captain Vidal impatiently awaits his new son.

On the way to the outpost, Ofelia spies a curious-looking insect, which eventually transforms into a fairy and leads her to a nearby labyrinth. There she meets a decrepit half-man, half-bovine creature who refers to himself as a faun. The old goat, we are meant to suspect, is really Pan of the title, though we are kept guessing at his true purpose. The faun sends Ofelia on quests that mimic the real world, and these fairy tales not only parallel reality and fantasy, but also offer a reprieve from the present. We see how the personal world of fantasy is superior whenever we venture with Ofelia, literally and figuratively, into her own inner visions.

The fairy-tale world wins in the end, of course, though in terms of the movie it's a loss. The captain, for one, is simply too vile and cruel to be believed, a Spanish Simon Legree. Better that he were made to be pitied than hated, since it's especially important in a story steeped in fantasy to make the humans human. As it is, the good guys are as perfectly good as the evil ones are perfectly evil. What starts off as imaginative and entertaining becomes tedious and dull. It's easy to get into "Pan's Labyrinth," but more difficult to figure out what you're supposed to get out of it. (R) 112 min. *** S~~~

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