Spain, 1944. “The Civil War is over. Hidden in the mountains, armed men are still fighting the new fascist regime.” We see a child lying on the ground with a bloody nose, as a narrator tells us, “A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a princess who dreamt of the human world. She dreamt of blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine.”
We see the princess escaping, and climbing a large staircase, as the narrator tells us that the sunlight blinded her and erased her memory. He goes on to tell us that the princess died in the above-ground world, but her father the king knew that her soul would eventually return “in another place, at another time.”
We see a girl, Ofelia, reading a story in the back of a car with her pregnant mother, Carmen. Carmen asks Ofelia why she brought so many books if they are traveling to the country, before looking at the book of fairy tales she has brought. Suddenly, Carmen becomes nauseous and asks them to stop the car. As they both get out of the car, Carmen tells Ofelia that the baby, a boy, is not well, and leans over the side of the car feeling sick. Ofelia, meanwhile, wanders a little ways into the large forest in which they have stopped.
As she walks, Ofelia notices a rock with an eye etched into it, which she keeps for herself before wandering towards a large stone pillar with the etching of a man’s face in it. She places the rock with the eye into a hole in the pillar, and a large insect crawls out of the pillar’s mouth hole, startling her. She watches the insect fly away as her mother calls to her. “I saw a fairy,” she says to her mother, as Carmen ushers her to the car and urges her to refer to the Captain as “Father” when they arrive.
We see Captain Vidal, Carmen’s new husband, waiting for them at his residence, annoyed that they are fifteen minutes late. He greets Carmen and touches her belly, before inviting her to sit in a wheelchair, in spite of her insistence that she can walk. Ofelia gets out of the car and greets Vidal with the wrong hand. He notes this and calls to Mercedes, a servant, telling her to bring the luggage in.
As she gets out of the car, Ofelia sees the insect from the forest and tries to catch it, chasing it towards a grove of trees. There she sees a large stone archway with a screaming head above it, and the start of a stone labyrinth. Mercedes comes up behind her and tells her that it’s a labyrinth that’s been there a long time. “Better not go in there, you may get lost,” she says, as Vidal interrupts them. “The captain is not my father,” Ofelia tells Mercedes, elaborating that her father was a tailor who died in the war.
We see Vidal and an advisor talking about the fact that the guerrillas they are tracking in the woods—republican rebels—are hard to find and catch. As he discusses his plans for trapping and harming the rebels, Mercedes listens in, intently.
Doctor Ferreiro visits Carmen in her bed and prescribes her two drops of something to help her sleep. After he leaves, he meets Mercedes in the hall and she tells him to go visit someone who has a leg wound. He hands her a package and apologizes, saying that it is all he could get for the patient in question. When Mercedes turns around, she sees that Ofelia has been spying on them.
Ofelia goes to bed with her mother, but is kept awake by creaking and wind. “Why did you have to get married?” Ofelia asks, and her mother tells her that she was alone for too long. When the baby begins to act up, Carmen asks Ofelia to tell it a story, which she does.
Her story involves a rocky, volcanic landscape in which a magic rose blooms, one which makes whoever plucks it immortal. The only problem is, there are poisonous thorns surrounding the flower, and no one dares to pluck it. The rose wilts, Ofelia says, unable to help anyone achieve immortality.
We see Vidal in his office cleaning a pocket watch, as Ferreiro enters and tells him that Carmen needs rest. When Vidal asks about his son, Ferreiro tells him that he has nothing to worry about, but that Carmen ought not to have traveled so late in her pregnancy. “A son should be born wherever his father is,” Vidal insists, but Ferreiro tells him that he is not so sure the baby is a boy.
Outside, some soldiers take Vidal to see two captives they found nearby. When he finds something in one of the men’s bags that says, “No God, no country, no master,” he dismisses it as “red propaganda,” as the older man insists that they are farmers and that he was only hunting rabbits. Abruptly, Vidal stabs the younger man repeatedly in the head and then shoots the older man several times. He looks through their things and finds there is a dead rabbit in the older man’s clothes, suggesting that he was telling the truth the whole time.
Ofelia is awakened by the sound of the insect she saw earlier and watches as it climbs up the edge of the bed and towards her. She says hello to the insect and asks if it is a fairy, before pulling out her book and showing the insect a print of a fairy. The insect suddenly morphs into a fairy and beckons Ofelia to follow towards the labyrinth, which she does.
Ofelia wanders into the labyrinth, following the fairy down a set of stone steps into some kind of underground lair. As they descend, she calls out into the darkness, but no one answers. Suddenly she encounters a faun, who tells her he has had many names that only the wind and trees can pronounce. “I am the mountain, the forest, and the earth,” he says, before bowing to Ofelia and telling her that she is Princess Moanna, daughter of the king of the underworld. “Look on your left shoulder, and you will find a mark that proves it,” the faun says. He gives her a book and tells her that she must complete three tasks before the moon is full, in order to prove that her soul is intact.
The film blends ordinary stories told in the realist mode—the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, a young girl who is on the brink of outgrowing the fairytale stories to which she is so attached—with more fantastical elements. The title card at the beginning of the film presents the aftermath of a fascist regime and a real war, but soon enough, we are shown a fantastical world, with underground kingdoms, princesses, kings, labyrinths, and immortal promises. The mythological and the real are set in tension with one another, coexisting in the world of the film from the very start.
The fantasy world is pathologized within the film in the story of Ofelia’s relationship with her mother and her mother’s new husband, Vidal. While Carmen feels affectionate towards her daughter, she never hesitates to bring Ofelia back down to earth when she seems to be lost in a fantastical revery. She looks at Ofelia’s book of fairy tales as something that she ought to have already outgrown, and ignores her talk of fairies and fantasy. Vidal thinks little of Ofelia, as he is a consummate rule-abider and pragmatist (not to mention fascist). Ofelia is a lone believer in magic in a world that wants only to lead her towards conformity and the pragmatism of adulthood.
Not only are the adults in Ofelia’s life trying to convince her to fit in more with the adult world, but they also represent the authoritarian government of Spain. Vidal, Carmen’s new husband, is a Falangist and is working to hunt down rebels from the war, those who are still fighting the Francoist regime. Thus, the contrast and tension between the fantastical world, which so fascinates the young Ofelia, and the real world, the world that her mother has entered into by marriage, is analogous to the tension between the rebels—those who dream of a better political future for Spain—and the Falangists—upholders of the authoritarian and fascist government.
Indeed, Ofelia’s grasp of fantasy is as much a virtue and a power as it is something that alienates her from the pragmatics of the real world. When she is lying in bed with her mother and the baby begins to act up in her mother’s stomach, Carmen asks Ofelia to tell the baby one of her stories, and Ofelia begins telling a fable. Ofelia is able to conceive of the world around her in terms of allegories and archetypes, to see the fanatical elements in the world. As she spins a story, we see the story unfold on the screen before us in vivid imagery.
It is not long before Ofelia breaks free from the mundane realm and finds herself in the fantastical world of the labyrinth. The insect (fairy) that she saw in the woods appears again in her bedroom at Vidal’s, before leading her to the labyrinth, where she meets the faun. The faun has no sooner made her acquaintance than he suggests that she is the reincarnation of Princess Moanna, the princess mentioned in the beginning of the film, and that she must prove the dignity of her soul by completing three fantastical and difficult tasks before the full moon. In no time at all, the film becomes a fairy tale to rival the books with which Ofelia is so enamored.