I've been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro's for years. I liked him when he was making Mimic and Blade II (which I still think is the best of the Blade series). I saw Hellboy multiple times in the theater. In fact, I was one of the few people among my peers who unabashedly enjoyed those movies. Most of my friends derided some or all of Del Toro's works (to which my response would always be "Go watch Cronos or The Devil's Backbone"), so I find it amusing that Del Toro received a torrent of praise and respect for his 2006 fantasy yarn, Pan's Labyrinth. That's not to say he didn't deserve it; it simply seemed strange that the very people who had lambasted him for making schlock in the past were now calling him a visionary director.
Pan's Labyrinth was marketed as a fantasy film. And while it does contain some fantasy elements, that is not the bulk of the picture. The majority of the movie is in fact a story about the Spanish Civil War. It follows Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl whose mother, in her loneliness, has married a cruel Fascist, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal, in his narcissism, demands that Ofelia and her mother come to stay with him in a farmhouse near a hotbed of rebels. Ofelia's mother is pregnant and the strain of it has made her frail. The travel has only made things worse. Ofelia finds that she has to entertain herself. Initially, she reads fantasy books. But soon she becomes fascinated with a labyrinth near the rear end of the house. Eventually, she travels deep into it and discovers a Faun (Doug Jones), a woodland creature who proclaims that she is the reincarnation of a lost princess, and must complete three tasks before she's allowed to return to her kingdom and her real parents. Meanwhile, Vidal hunts tirelessly for the rebels, and doesn't take well to Ofelia's increasingly erratic behavior.
Pan's Labyrinth is a film of levels. On a first viewing, it's hard to get past the disparate storylines that seem to rarely intersect. Subsequently, the subtle intertwining of themes becomes more apparent. In that sense, the movie requires both repeated viewings and a lot of attention. Certain elements will jump out at you from the beginning. Del Toro is an immaculate craftsman when it comes to forging arresting imagery. Both the fantasy aspects and the real world are equally sumptuous, filled with verdant greens and golden hues. Not only that, but Del Toro fills the environments with fascinating architecture and bizarre characters.
Perhaps the most striking element of the film is its viciousness. Usually fantasy is an escape from the real world, but in Pan's Labyrinth, the fantasy sequences are some of the most horrendous. In particular is the scene where Ofelia sneaks into the abode of a monster who eats children in search of an artifact. The creature, inspired by Goya's painting Saturn Devouring His Son, is easily one of the most nightmarish creations I've ever seen put on the screen. But not only that, the Faun itself is a creature of unknowable menace. Many of his actions and movements hint at much darker intentions than his words suggest, adding tension to the scene, as we often wonder whether or not Ofelia will survive any given encounter with him.
And from Vidal we get some of the most disturbing brutality of any film of the past five years. It's not just the graphic nature of it, as you can see intense violence in most PG-13 movies these days. But it's the context that makes it so harrowing. There's a scene where Vidal bashes in the face of a suspected rebel with a glass bottle. The man's face literally implodes as Vidal mercilessly hammers the bottle into him, over and over. Given that we'd been treated to more innocuous fantasy overtones at this point in the picture, the juxtaposition of the violence is truly shocking.
There are some flaws to the piece. The balance between reality and fantasy is very lopsided towards reality, giving the piece an overwhelmingly oppressive atmosphere that the few snippets of fantasy cannot alleviate. Given this tendency, the ending is undeservedly happy in the fantasy aspects, with a wrap-up that feels too neat, given the ambiguity of all the previous scenes. Still, there's a lot to appreciate here, especially for viewers who are willing to take the time to dig into the film's riches.
The HD DVD:
Pan's Labyrinth was New Line's first simultaneous HD DVD and Blu-ray release (Shoot 'Em Up and Hairspray were delayed on HD DVD due to its lack of region coding conflicting with international theatrical release dates). And, now that Warner Bros. and all affiliate companies have announced Blu-ray exclusivity, it looks like Pan's Labyrinth will be New Line's only entry on the format. Still, it's a strong debut, and it's a shame we won't be able to see what else they could have done with it.
New Line presents Pan's Labyrinth in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. For the most part, there's a lot to enjoy. The all-important colors pop off the screen. It's very satisfying to see the hills by the farmhouse for the first time, where you can make out individual bushes in the wide shots. Similarly, the labyrinth has plenty of detail, with its crumbling facades and ivy-covered walls. Del Toro's color schemes have all been preserved, with the film jumping from one dominant hue to another. If there's any problem with the image, it's that New Line has applied digital noise reduction (DNR) to the transfer in an attempt to lessen the amount of grain. Now, I'm opposed to this on principle, as the grain is a part of the image as much as the characters that populate the picture. But I found it especially distracting here. At times, the character's complexions look positively waxy, which I'm pretty sure was not the intention. Still, it's not all pervasive, as it's clearly worse in some scenes than others. It's not enough for me to dissuade anyone from buying the disc, but it does make me wag my finger in disappointment at New Line.
New Line offers a lossless DTS-HD MA Spanish 7.1 mix for Pan's Labyrinth. While my PS3 is still only able to pull the lossy core from a DTS-HD MA mix, the results are fantastic. The dynamics of the track are stunning, with full immersion at all times. From the first moments, the mix is completely alive, with the sound of gravel kicking and popping under the tires of the car in which Ofelia and her mother are riding. The sound design on the stick bugs, fairies, and Faun make them feel almost tangible. There's a very physical quality to their sound design. But in any given scene, there's always something to set the mood, whether it be a fire crackling in the fire place, or crickets in the outdoor scenes. When Vidal engages the rebels in battle, you really feel it. The bass gets quite a workout, and the surrounds are always alive with action. It's difficult to convey just how impressive this mix is. It has to be heard to be believed.
This HD DVD edition of Pan's Labyrinth collects all the material from the 2-disc platinum edition release, and adds a little more on top. All of the materials are in standard definition, but there's so much here that it hardly matters.
- Director's Prologue: Writer and director Guillermo Del Toro gives a short but sincere intro to the picture, in which he lays down how much the piece means to him.
- Commentary by Writer/Director Guillermo Del Toro: Del Toro is one of the best spoken filmmakers I've had the pleasure of hearing (which is especially impressive since English is his second language), and this commentary is his best to date. Del Toro mainly discusses the film's themes, how the imagery ties into them, and a few select production stories. He's at his most engaging when he's really digging into the meat of the story, pointing out how all kinds of little, practically unnoticeable details tie into the larger themes and ideas.
- Enhanced Visual Commentary: New Line's version of the In Movie Experience has a few customizable options. The whole thing plays with snippets of the standard audio commentary. On the most basic level, you get material from the other featurettes in a picture-in-picture window. You can also choose to view the storyboards for the entire film run in conjunction with each scene, or production designs and photographs. Not only that, but you can also opt to have even more featurettes interrupt the feature at various point. It would have been more useful with new material, but it does allow you to compact a lot of the extra content together.
- The Power of Myth: The first of the disc's documentaries, this one focuses on Del Toro's take on fairy tales (surprise surprise, they're much more brutal than what you're used to).
- Pan and the Fairies (El Fauno y Las Hadas): A half-hour look at the special effects used in the film. There's a lot of great footage here, including interviews with Del Toro and his collaborators. There's also a lot of Doug Jones, the actor inside the Faun suit, in almost all the phases of his transformation. Be sure to turn on the subtitles, though, as much of it is in Spanish.
- The Color and the Shape: Del Toro talks about the color schemes in the movie here in this featurette, but you actually can get more information about the subject by listening to the commentary.
- The Lullaby - The Melody Echoes the Fairy Tale: A quick look at the music that becomes an integral part of the story.
- The Charlie Rose Show: Aside from the commentary, this is the best extra on the disc. It's an episode of The Charlie Rose Show with not just Guillermo Del Toro, but his friends and collaborators Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Cuaron tends to dominate the discussion, but all three are very talkative and intelligent. You can tell the three get along well together, and there's a real sense of camaraderie.
- The Director's Notebook: A selection of shorter segments, totaling around twenty minutes.
- Storyboard Comparisons: A few scenes get the storyboard comparison treatment, with the added bonus of the original conceptual drawings by Del Toro himself.
- VFX Plate Comparison: A light test for one of the fairies. A similar video is available on the Hellboy home video releases, but here it comes off as far less interesting.
- Comics: Short but interesting comics that deepend the stories of the peripheral characters.
- Photo Galleries
- Marketing Campaign Materials: We get the teaser, trailer, television spots, and posters.
- Web-Enabled Content: Exclusive entirely to the HD DVD (the Enhanced Video Commentary is also on the Blu-ray) is a collection of web-enabled content. Normally, I'd make a bigger deal about this, but what we get is so spartan and essentially useless that I'm not going to lament the loss on the Blu-ray edition.
Pan's Labyrinth is a layered and nuanced film that gained quite a bit of notoriety for its writer and director, Guillermo Del Toro. The piece works best with repeated viewings, where attentive audience members can really dig into the meat of the work. This HD DVD gives the best home video presentation of the film to date. Although the image does at times suffer from unreasonable noise reduction, the audio is nothing short of revelatory. We also get all of the special features from the previous special edition DVD and features exclusive to the next gen formats. Very easily Highly Recommended.
Note: The images in this review are not representative of the image quality on the disc.