An Academy Award–winning dark fable set five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth encapsulates the rich visual style and genre-defying craft of Guillermo del Toro. Eleven-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in a mature and tender performance) comes face to face with the horrors of fascism when she and her pregnant mother are uprooted to the countryside, where her new stepfather (Sergi López), a sadistic captain in General Franco’s army, hunts down Republican guerrillas who refuse to give up the fight. The violent reality in which she lives merges seamlessly with a fantastical interior world when Ofelia meets a faun in a decaying labyrinth and is set on a strange, mythic journey that is at once terrifying and beautiful. In his revisiting of this bloody period in Spanish history, del Toro creates a vivid depiction of the monstrosities of war infiltrating a child’s imagination and threatening the innocence of youth.
In 'Pan's Labyrinth,' ten-year-old Ofelia, played by the highly talented Ivana Baquero, escapes the cruelty and inhumanity of the real world in favor of fantasy and fairy tales. She's an incredibly caring and sensitive girl who finds comfort and solace in the reverie of her imagination, inventing whimsical adventures fraught with danger about heroism, self-sacrifice and the virtue of innocence. The adults in her life have long ago abandoned such childhood games, going so far as to call such stories immature foolishness and a frivolous waste. Her new stepfather Captain Vidal, a terrifyingly convincing Sergi López, is a cold-hearted leader so stern and austere in his fascist conservative view of the world as it is and should be that it's difficult to imagine he was ever an inventive child. Her doting pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) can only encourage her daughter's imagination for so long that it eventually feels more like tolerating than supportive. The captain's housekeeper with a dangerous secret Mercedes (a wonderful Maribel Verdú) is sympathetic to Ofelia's fanciful games, but she, too, confesses having to forsake such whims in order to survive the real world.
Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, del Toro brings his recurring "loss of innocence" theme full circle with a darkly somber but dismally macabre fairy tale about a little girl caught between two worlds. And part of the film's beauty and intelligence is its creator allowing his audience to decide which of those contrasting worlds we're actually talking about. On the one hand, we have the cold, hard reality of when totalitarian dictator Francisco Franco was to reign for the next three decades battling with the more hospitable and colorful escapism of fantasy where anything is possible. And on the other hand, del Toro's script is the archetypal coming-of-age story when a child reaches a certain age and internally struggles with adopting the world's less fanciful challenges. More importantly, the women in Ofelia's life have surrendered to the cold brutality and sometimes hellish savagery of reality. Her mother's quiet submission to a callous, stony-hearted husband is justified as the only way to survive, and her only friend Mercedes endures a vicious employer with bowed compliance while concealing her true self and a mourning sadness for her childhood innocence.
On a larger, overreaching theme, del Toro explores how much the real world influences and even fuels the imagination. Ofelia's fantasy of possibly being the reincarnated Princess Moanna of the underworld is inhabited by dark, shocking creatures whose intentions are never strictly black or white. Creepily portrayed by Doug Jones, Pan's terrifying appearance is only skin deep, but like Mercedes and the pitiable Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo), time reveals the forest beast is an ally who touches on the plot's subject of blind obedience and the virtue of skepticism. Similar to the captain's brutish trampling of a child's creativity, the Pale Man (also played by Jones) comes with a sadistic appetite for the soul of children while using a bountiful feast to lure the innocent. And the Mexican director ingeniously employs various folk tale motifs for articulating these ideas and brilliantly capturing the imagination of his audience. From the obvious allusions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books and the works of Jorge Luis Borges to subtler references of the Brothers Grimm (instead of a wicked stepmother, we have a wicked stepfather) and Guillermo Navarro's photography taking inspiration from Francisco Goya's paintings, 'Pan's Labyrinth' is one of the most poignantly haunting fantasy tales of our time.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of 'Pan's Labyrinth' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #838) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a foldout pamphlet with an insightful essay entitled "The Heart of the Maze" by author and film critic Michael Atkinson. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
For del Toro's darkly twisted fairy tale into the world of Criterion, producers have culled this wonderful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode from an already available 2K digital intermediate, which was decided to be a faithful representation of the filmmakers' original vision. The accompanying booklet further explains that adjustments were made to the colors in accordance with that vision, but there is no mention of either the director or cinematographer Guillermo Navarro approving or supervising these changes. In either case, the results are excellent.
Compared to the 2007 release, the presentation largely appears identical, but I would probably give the Criterion version the edge and preferred method of watching in the future. Definition and clarity are outstanding, exposing every nook and cranny of the Captain's depressingly austere home. Every fiber and thread in the clothing is sharp, and natural, lifelike complexions are revealing. As mentioned, the palette arrives with a rich and bold array of colors that, on a few occasions, seem slightly oversaturated. However, none of this distracts from the film's enjoyment or ruin the intentionally gloomy photography's steely blue overcast and striking crimson reds of blood. Spot-on contrast maintains superb visibility of background info, and intense blacks penetrate into the screen, providing the 1.85:1 image with appreciable film-like depth without sacrificing the smallest details in the darkest shadows.
Although Criterion offers two surround sound options for listeners, which were remastered from the original digital audio files, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is ultimately the same one heard on the 2007 release. Showing little difference between them, the only noticeable improvement is a slightly cleaner dynamic range, exhibiting room-penetrating clarity and marvelous acoustical details. Every bated breath, every ringing burst of a fired bullet, every footstep echoing in stone hallways and large rooms, and every splintering crack in the bones of Pan or the Pale Man can be distinctly heard with outstanding clarity and realism. The low-end delivers an authoritative, floor rumbling shockwave that reverberates all around and even digs into the lower depths on a couple occasions. The rears are almost continuously active with various effects discretely moving from one side of the room to the other, creating a wonderfully immersive 360° soundfield that will haunt viewers' imagination. Amid all the nightmarish chaos and stunning visuals, vocals remain consistently prioritized and intelligible, giving us a reference quality lossless mix that'll put contemporary action flicks to shame.
To many, including myself, the dark, macabre fairy tale of 'Pan's Labyrinth' is his magnum opus, seamlessly blending together the twisted ghouls of his imagination with elements of fantasy and his fondness with stories about the loss of innocence. The film follows ten-year-old Ofelia escaping the cold, harsh cruelty of her reality and into the warm embrace of her imagination while the adults in her life try to persuade her of surrendering her fantasies. The Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection arrives with a wonderful, reference-quality audio and video presentation. Although some of the supplements are ported over from the 2007 release, the new additions are more than enough to tempt fans with a double-dip.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.