TajLV’s review published on Letterboxd:
This film has been compared to lots of fantasies, from "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Bridge to Terabithia" to "Lord of the Rings." Ebert & Roeper once called it a well told "adult fairy tale." And I understand that. After all, there is a fantasy world, a brave mission to accomplish, and danger lurks at every turn. But this film is so much more grounded in reality than that; to me, it is a tragic war movie that just happens to have a very imaginative sub-plot.
To be specific, I never felt like crying while watching Narnia or the LOTR trilogy, but this got to me to the point of tears. Harsh truths. Innocence lost. Inhuman cruelty. Scenes of torture and bloody attempts at healing. Unlike those fantasy films, this isn't an escapist vehicle at all. Instead, it carries us into the deepest, darkest recesses of the soul and forces us to lament every misstep we ever made on the labyrinthine journey to adulthood.
Of course, the cinematography is outstanding. Despite how scary it can be, it is a singularly beautiful piece of filmmaking. Excellent acting is delivered, too, by Ivana Baquero as the bookish girl Ofelia who dreams of being a princess and by Ariadna Gil as her pregnant mother Carmen. Maribel Verdú is also noteworthy in her performance as the conflicted housekeeper Mercedes, and Doug Jones is peerless under all the make-up that turned him into the giant Faun and the freakish Pale Man.
For me, however, it was Sergi López playing the pitiless Captain Vidal that brought this film to a higher level. His ruthlessness gives new meaning to the term "cold-blooded." I understand that theaters in Spain had to post warnings so that parents would think twice before bringing their children to see this "fairy tale."
I also read that immediately after the film was first shown at Cannes, it received a 22-minute standing ovation. This was repeated at its North American debut in Toronto. If I had been in either audience, I certainly would have been on my feet cheering, even as tears ran down my face. It is a masterful production.