A true modern fairytale that hits with devastating precision, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is just as impactful 13 years after its original release as it was back in 2006. Released as part of an elaborate Blu-ray boxset from the Criterion Collection in 2016, as well as on standard DVD and Blu-ray, the film is now available on 4K Ultra HD courtesy of Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema. The visuals remain intoxicating and the story gripping, and this wholly original film is one of writer/director del Toro's finest achievements. Set in 1944 Spain, during the Francoist period following the Spanish Civil War, Pan's Labyrinth sees adolescent Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) face the horrors of her brutal stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who is obsessed with hunting down rebel factions, and escape into the mysterious world of a faun and his dangerous labyrinth.
The film opens with a fairy tale, in which a princess, the daughter of the king of the underworld, visits the human world and loses her memories. She becomes human and eventually dies, but the king believes that her spirit will eventually return to the underworld, so he constructs portals to guide her home. In 1944, Ofelia and her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) move to live with Captain Vidal, whose father was a famous commander who died in battle. Ofelia wanders the grounds of the compound and finds an insect resembling a fairy that leads her into a stone labyrinth. She ultimately meets the Faun (Doug Jones), who believes Ofelia to be the underworld princess reincarnated. She is given three tasks by the Faun in order to become immortal again and return to her rightful place in her kingdom. Meanwhile, Vidal becomes increasingly paranoid of the republican rebels and is obsessed with the baby inside Carmen, telling his servants that it will be a boy. Housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) secretly aids the rebels, including her brother, risking her life in the process.
The film is at times uncomfortably violent. Faces are smashed with blunt objects, people are shot at close range, and violent creatures behave in kind. Del Toro purposely creates a stark, bloody contrast between the horrors of Ofelia's domestic life and the fantastical creatures and pitfalls of the exotically beautiful labyrinth. Turmoil and danger are present in both locations, but Ofelia finds solace and comfort in the Faun and freedom of the underground. The third of the director's "fairy tale films" after The Devil's Backbone and Chronos, Pan's Labyrinth is a beautifully shot and fully realized fantasy film. Filmed after years of planning and sketching by del Toro and shot in his native Spanish, Pan's Labyrinth is one of the most effective modern fairy tale films ever.
The acting here is fantastic. Young Baquero is excellent when reacting to unimaginable horrors and unexpected mysteries. Captain Vidal is one of the nastiest on-screen antagonists of the 2000s, and Lopez is pitch perfect. I wanted to reach through the screen and yank him away from Ofelia, Mercedes and Carmen. Gil and Verdu are also good in their roles, with Gil's Carmen marrying Vidal more out of desperation than love and Verdu's Mercedes willing to face torture and death to keep Vidal from succeeding in his cruel vendetta. The creature design is incredible and consists mostly of CGI-assisted animatronics in gorgeous practical sets. Jones also plays the Pale Man, the memorable haunt Ofelia encounters on one of her quests, who uses his hands to see. The film concludes with a bang but leaves its ultimate interpretation up to viewers. Del Toro believes in magic and seems to suggest that viewers can, too. If films are meant to immerse, entertain and impact, then Pan's Labyrinth is a complete success.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
The 1.85:1/2160p/HEVC/H.265 image offers HDR10 and is upscaled from a 2K source, likely due to the effects being completed in 2K. The film was released on Blu-ray way back in 2007 and again in the Criterion set, which includes a director-approved remaster with different color timing. I am not sure which master was used to create this 4K transfer, as the color timing does not exactly match the 2007 Blu-ray or the Criterion release. That said, this is certainly a pleasing presentation that very much replicates the theatrical experience as I remember it.
While detail is not night-and-day better than the Blu-ray (the Criterion one at least), the 4K image does provide subtle improvements in fine-object detail, sharpness, depth and texture. The film is graded in blues and greys, save for a few scenes bathed in brilliant reds and golds, and the transfer handles this color palette expertly. Skin tones are improved from previous releases, in which I felt they ran a bit too hot. Blacks are inky and stable, and shadow detail is abundant, which is a real plus for the impressive visuals. Colors are bold and nicely saturated, and the subtle HDR pass does improve the presentation of these colors, black levels and overall highlight balance. Most appreciated on this 4K release are the lack of edge enhancement and halos that plagued the original Blu-ray and compression artifacts that popped up on the Criterion.
In a very odd oversight, the disc only includes a Spanish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. I understand that not every 4K release gets a new Atmos mix, but there is a 7.1 mix that has been available since the 2007 Blu-ray. What the heck, WB? Even so, this mix is incredibly immersive and effective. Dialogue, score and effects are balanced appropriately, and the LFE supports the proceedings frequently. Ambient effects, like weather, footsteps and running water, surround the viewer, and action bits like gunshots, running horses and combat clamor offer the opportunity for frequent sound panning. English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes the 4K disc, a copy of the 2007 Blu-ray and an HD digital copy code. The discs are packed in a 4K case that is wrapped in a slipcover with interesting new key artwork. Those looking for the Criterion Collection extras will not find them here, as the material is identical to the original Blu-ray release. You get an Audio Commentary by Director Guillermo del Toro on both discs that is quite informative. The remainder of the extras are on the Blu-ray, including an Enhanced Visual Commentary; featurettes The Power of Myth (14:23/SD), Pan and the Fairies (30:27/SD), The Color and the Shape (4:01/SD), and the Lullaby (5:02/SD); The Director's Notebook, which includes an Introduction (0:34/SD), stills of sketches and storyboards, galleries and a VFX Plate Comparison (1:17/SD); an episode of The Charlie Rose Show (49:25/SD) with del Toro and filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; four animated Comics and Marketing Materials.
This wonderful, visceral and dramatically involving fairy tale from Guillermo del Toro is one of the finest films of the 2000s and offers wonderful performances and enchanting visuals. The bonus materials are recycled from the 2007 Blu-ray release and do not include the Criterion Collection material from 2016. This is the best home-video presentation of the film to date, and the 4K replicates the theatrical experience with a lifelike image, gorgeous colors and abundant shadow detail. On the film's merits alone, this warrants the rating of DVD Talk Collector Series.