It starts—like any good fairy tale—with a story about a girl. And not just any girl: the princess of the Underground Realm.
We realize that this might sound like kind of scary, ominous, up-to-no-good girl, but she's really just young and curious. So curious, in fact, that she escapes to the mortal world where she's blinded by the sun, forgets who she is, and lives a life of pain and fear before dying.
If this is any indication (and, um, it is) this is not going to be a happy story. But very few stories about the Spanish Civil War are exactly uplifting.
We're first introduced to eleven-year-old Ofelia and her mother Carmen as they travel to Captain Vidal's estate. Carmen is preggo, (and isn't having an easy time of it) and Ofelia's mind is lost in the realm of fairies. She even thinks a bug is a fairy…and not like a beautiful, gossamer-looking butterfly. She thinks a nasty stick insect is from the land of pixies.
If Peter Pan had asked us to clap our hands if we believed in fairies that looked like disgusting sentient twigs, we would have sat on our dang hands and let Tinkerbell die.
When they arrive we meet Captain Vidal—who's Carmen's hubby—and his men. They're busy fighting the rebels living in the surrounding woods. (They're the kind of creeps who believe that humans are the most dangerous game.)
Ofelia, led by the creepy stick insect, does some exploring and finds an old labyrinth. She meets the housekeeper Mercedes, who's a kind gentle woman—especially in comparison to the harsh Vidal.
A lot happens on the first night. For one, Ofelia sees that Mercedes and Ferreiro, the Doctor, are helping the rebels.
For another, the insect becomes much more fairy-like (and less hideous) and leads her to the labyrinth in the middle of the night. She descends some stairs and is greeted by a very filthy (and more-than-slightly creepy) faun who tells her she's the princess of legend and must complete three tasks before the full moon if she wants to return to her homeland.
Yeah. We know that drill…but if the general ominousness surrounding the bug-fairy and the fact that the faun looks ever-so-slightly like the serial killer known as Jigsaw are any indication, these tasks are going to be messed up.
And what do you know—the tasks are messed up. The first is to feed three magic stones to the giant toad living inside an ancient fig tree. Ofelia gets a little muddy crawling through the cavernous underbelly of the tree, but she slips the toad the magic stones…and he vomits up his own stomach lining and deflates into a toad-skin rug.
Also, the new dress her mother gave her is ruined—but Ofelia doesn't really care much about dresses. She's completed her first nasty task.
Unfortunately, back in the "real" world, things aren't much less nasty. Carmen's pregnancy is getting a lot worse. She's bleeding and feverous and Ofelia has to sleep in a different room from her. Luckily, the Faun's there to give her a mandrake root to help her mother…and to give her chalk so that she can draw a door in her room and complete the second quest.
And this one makes the whole toad debacle look like a walk in the park.
She enters a room with a freaky-looking man who has long nails and no eyes in his face. This is the Pale Man—and, like his name suggests, he's the color of Caspar The Friendly Ghost. But they could have just as accurately called him Mr. Nightmare Food.
She retrieves the item she was instructed to (a dagger), but can't resist the food she was forbidden from eating. When she chows down on a grape, the monster awakens, placing his eyes in the palms of his hand (it's truly upsetting). He busies himself by snacking on a few fairy heads, and then almost catching Ofelia as she escapes.
Meanwhile, in the mortal realm, we learn that Mercedes' brother is one of the rebels. She and the Doc go visit the rebels, bringing food and letters. Then the rebels invade the estate using a decoy train attack to break into the storeroom.
But Vidal and his men are quick and better armed. They chase the men down, killing all accept one, whom they torture. The Doctor kills the hostage out of mercy, directly disobeying Vidal. Vidal shoots him.
In other words, the world of early 1940s Spain is just as upsetting as the world of Ofelia's quests.
The Faun is mad about the whole forbidden food-eating incident. He yells at Ofelia, and then leaves her. The next morning, when Ofelia is checking on the mandrake in her mother's room, Vidal catches her and yells at her. He's weirded out by the mandrake—we don't exactly blame him; the thing was like a baby mixed with an enormous ginger root.
Carmen wakes and says she'll handle it. She throws the mandrake in the fireplace and when it burns she begins to go into a dangerous labor…which costs her her life. Luckily, her baby boy can be saved. Vidal's obsessed with the boy (but mostly with having an heir to carry his name).
But things don't start getting better. Vidal's onto Mercedes' rebel-helping scheme, so she tries to bolt, taking Ofelia with her. Vidal catches them and brings Mercedes back to torture her, but Vidal's the one who ends up getting stabbed. Mercedes is able to make a break for the woods and rendezvous with the rebels who save her life.
Ofelia, on the orders of the Faun (who decided to give her a second chance), steals her brother and runs from the wounded Vidal, who chases her with his gun drawn. In the meantime, the rebels have gained some reinforcements and are assaulting the estate.
Ofelia runs to the labyrinth and meets the Faun. But when the Faun asks for her brother so that he can spill some of his blood in the pool, she refuses. She's a good sister, and doesn't want a goat-man getting stab-happy with her baby bro.
Vidal finds her, takes his son, and shoots Ofelia. Vidal exits the labyrinth only to meet the rebel force waiting for him. They take his son and shoot him dead—good riddance.
Inside the labyrinth they find the dying Ofelia, whose blood drips into the pool, opening her passage to the underworld.
She awakes unharmed in a golden room with her real parents seated on two thrones and a third one empty, just for her. The Faun is there with his fairies and he bows to her. Ofelia smiles; she's happy. She's finally home.