PAN'S LABYRINTH - Blu-ray review

This is a must have for any Blu-ray collection.

DeanWink

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is best known to American audiences for his directorial work on "Blade II" and "Hellboy." His earlier work included the films "Mimic" and "Cronos." The higher profile films have been successful and del Toro is currently working with his favorite leading man Ron Pearlman on a sequel to "Hellboy." While the two comic book adaptations have brought the most commercial success for del Toro, his critical success has come through two films in which he served as both writer and director. "El Espinazo del Diablo" (The Devil's Backbone) and "El Laberinto del Fauno" (Pan's Labyrinth) are spiritually similar films that combine aspects of fairy tales, mythology and parables. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a personal film for del Toro and was imagined by the director for over two decades before he finally put his thoughts to celluloid.

I have seen comparisons made regarding "Pan's Labyrinth" to M. Night Shyamalan's "The Lady in the Water" and to the big screen adaptation of the Walt Disney film "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." It has also been compared to the recent "The Bridge to Terabithia." Being familiar with the first two films, the only similarity I see that "Pan's Labyrinth" shares with "The Lady in the Water" is that it was a personal journey for both films' directors. Shyamalan had created his story as a bedtime children's story that is intertwined with mythology and monsters. "Pan's Labyrinth" could be viewed as such, but is a far more mythical creation set in a wondrous world and not in the pool of an apartment complex. The film does share many similar themes to "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," but I've always viewed that Disney film as a commercial picture and "Pan's Labyrinth" as genuine cinematic artistry.

The film's antagonist is a little girl named Ofelia and portrayed brilliantly by the eleven year old actress Ivana Baquero. Guillermo del Toro changed the age of the character to fit the actress's age because of her charm. He chose correctly as young Ivana brings warmth to the role and the important imagination of a child to life. This was not an easy role and it required the young leading lady to crawl through mud and perform a few very physical scenes. She was asked to show numerous emotions and never once failed in conveying genuine emotion. There were times when she was required to show fear, happiness, and sorrow and to be heroic. Regardless of the situation, young Ivana came through with flying colors and I consider this to be one of the finer efforts by a child actor in many, many years.

The plot finds Ofelia traveling with her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) late in Carmen's pregnancy. The two are journeying against doctor's wishes to allow Carmen's husband Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez i Ayats) to welcome his unborn son into the world. Vidal is a ruthless military man who is hell-bent on eradicating rebels against the new Spanish regime of Francisco Franco. Ofelia does not like her new stepfather and refuses to address her as Father. The marriage of Carmen to Vidal appears to have been more out of necessity for Carmen than out of love, but Vidal is a person who has power and an ability to provide for his family. Along the journey, Carmen needs a moment of fresh air and her and Ofelia step out of the car for just a short while. Ofelia walks around in the forest and comes across a creature she believes to be a fairy. Upon returning to the car, the fairy flies behind them as they complete their journey.

Once Ofelia arrives at the military post governed by Vidal, she is defiant against her stepfather, but discovers that the fairy she previously saw has made the trip. The large insect flies in a direction that leads Ofelia to an ancient labyrinth. Before Ofelia can travel deeper into the labyrinth and investigate what may lie within its pathways, she is stopped by Vidal's personal housemaid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) and taken back to the house to wash up and prepare for dinner. The insect again returns that night and shows itself to be the fairy that Ofelia thought it to be. The fairy communicates to Ofelia that it desires for the girl to follow it into the labyrinth. Ofelia leaves the home and follows the Fairy through the twisted walkways of the labyrinth and discovers a stairway that leads down into the earthen floor. There, Ofelia is introduced to a mythical creature called a Faun (Doug Jones).

The faun tells Ofelia that she is actually Princess Moanna and needs to return from the world of humans back to the magical world she left. The faun tells her that to do so, she must follow three specific tasks. The three tasks must be completed before the next full moon and they must be performed to prove to the faun that her essence is pure and that she can return to the lands where she is of royal blood. The faun details the very first task for Ofelia and explains that she must travel to a grand old tree in the forest that suffers from a sickness. The sickness is a gluttonous toad that lives inside of it and whose presence prohibits the tree from being healthy and providing sanctity and shelter to the woodland creatures that depend on the tree. The faun gives Ofelia a magical book and sends her back to the home of Captain Vidal.

The film then moves on to becoming a struggle on two fronts. The first struggle is Ofelia's imagination and hopes for a happier life leading her to believe the faun's far fetched story about her being a princess of a land below ground. She does not want to leave her mother and forthcoming baby brother behind, but is tempted to escape the unhappy life under he cruel stepfather's rule. Ofelia is reluctant at first to take part in the tasks, but slowly completes them. Her child mentality nearly has her fail the second task, but she soon buys completely into the faun's story. The second front is the struggle between the Spanish rebels and the murderous rule of Captain Vidal. The man slaughters two rabbit hunters on a whim and commits numerous other atrocities against the civilian population as he struggles to usurp the rebellion. His wife and children is a distant second to his desire to become a heralded military commander.

The story takes a little girl into an uncertain and unknown world of mystery. Up until the very end of the film, the viewer is kept unsure as to whether or not the faun is a noble creature of magic or simply an evil beast trying to use a little girl to do his bidding. Both the faun and fairies are disturbing in their presence and are far from beautiful in appearance. The tasks undertaken by the little girl walk the line of morality and from different angles, it could appear that the things she are doing are far from noble. Compared to the horrendous atrocities of Vidal, it is hard to decide whether or not the Faun's intentions are for the better good as it is hard to gauge the level of cruelty between the killing of innocent rabbit farmers and the destruction of an oversized toad. The film has a dangerous and deadly appeal that provides a thrilling storyline that contains some minor elements of a classic horror film.

The parallel plotlines of Vidal's relationship between himself and the world around him nicely echo the struggle between Ofelia and her entrance into a world of mythology. The fascist regime that Vidal commands is a harsh existence for just about everybody but himself. His personal doctor and maid both have connections to the forces that desire to end his reign. He is a tyrant king that rivals the cruelest kings in fairy tale literature. In a sense, Ofelia is a princess that can bring an end to his rule and bring just rule to those he represses. She must protect the person that is most dear to her; her mother. However, the parallel journey of Ofelia finds her mother repressing her and her desire to discover what the faun tempts her with. She must betray her mother to uncover the secret of the labyrinth and learn if she truly is a noble princess who is not a creature of man. Again, credits goes to young Ivana Baquero for her performance.

"Pan's Labyrinth" is a beautifully conceived and visual picture from Guillermo del Toro. The story comes from his own vivid imagination and he concocts a wondrous fairy tale with monsters, fairies and an ultimate happy ending. Fairy tales and mythical worlds are something that has been lost over the past few generations and films that tackle similar subject matter tend to make their stories too child-friendly or they become lost with spectacle and special effects. "Pan's Labyrinth" has its share of gorgeous effects, but the film grounds itself in reality and uses the effects to only assist the story to entertain and not provide all of the entertainment by special effect only. The film is a visual tour de force that brings the post-Spanish Civil War era to life and mixes that period together with a convincing magical existence with fairies, fauns and the hideous cannibalistic Pail Man.

Del Toro deserves a tremendous amount of credit for this film, which is wholly his creation. The genesis of the story began as sketches and random writings in his notebooks and over the course of twenty-something years, Guillermo del Toro pieced together a story and a vision for the film. He started to cast his actors before having a script ready and surrounded himself with the people that he thought were best for the roles. Doug Jones is an actor that del Toro has used in the past and although the actor's lines were dubbed by a Spanish speaking theatre performer, del Toro knew he would handle the physical parts of the roles for both the faun and the Pale Man. He cast Maribel Verdu and Sergi Lopez i Ayats in roles that were against how they were typecast. Everything about "Pan's Labyrinth" comes from del Toro's mind and he illustrates with this film that he is one of the more imaginative people making films today.

I thoroughly enjoyed "Pan's Labyrinth" and feel the picture is the strongest of recent child-centric magical adventures. It has more story and better acting than the larger budgeted "Chronicles of Narnia" film. It brings back the unknown sense of adventure that helped make "The Wizard of Oz" a classic. The film is rated R and this precludes most children from witnessing the child's tale written by del Toro. However, this fairy tale is more than enjoyable for adults and the film allows us to remember back to a time when we were all mesmerized by stories of fairies and evil kings. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a movie that brings reality to age-old fairy tales and never fails to entertain. It is a unique storytelling experience that hints at things to come from writer/director Guillermo del Toro as he ascends the ranks of Hollywood's A-list of directors. Some may be distracted by the subtitles, but for those that would brush aside that film on that basis are missing out on a wonderful experience.

Video:

The 1.85:1 "Pan's Labyrinth" is delivered in 1080p to its viewers with a very nice VC-1 encoded transfer. Director of Photography Guillermo Navarro and Guillermo del Toro have pieced together an amazing looking film that combines beauty and horror. There is light and there is dark and the transfer brings both to life wonderfully. Detail is striking and sharp. The walls of the labyrinth show detailed stonework and foliage. From the very opening moments when the Spanish countryside is shown, it is clear that "Pan's Labyrinth" is a top-notch looking title. Colors are rich and vivid. Skin tones are natural looking and contrast is spot on. The film never looks blown out or overly processed. What amazes me most with "Pan's Labyrinth" is how well the film holds up during even the darkest moments. There are a number of key scenes that take place in near darkness and the faun tends to live amongst the shadows. The beautiful details of this film are never lost during even the darkest moments. The film is clean looking, with little grain and not a single blemish or flaw from its pristine source materials. In short, "Pan's Labyrinth" is an amazing looking film.

Audio:

Audio for "Pan's Labyrinth" is provided via a Spanish DTS-HD Mater Audio 7.1 mix. The soundtrack is aggressive and enveloping. Guillermo del Toro has created an amazing world in every aspect of the film and the sound is just as impressive as the storytelling and the film's visuals. Every channel comes alive with sound and the front speakers, .1 LFE channel and the rear surrounds are all energetic and use the full spectrum of sound available to them. The film provides a plethora of interesting situations for the sound to recreate. There are combat scenes, peaceful moments in the forest and frightening instances in the labyrinth. There is peace and tranquility and there is war. The Blu-ray title's soundtrack handles everything thrown its way and sounds absolutely stunning. I was impressed with both the dynamics of the soundtrack and how cleanly everything pulled together. Sound moves nicely between channels and no particular channel drowns another out. Dialogue is always crisp and clear. The musical score by Javier Navarrette is clean and powerful and nicely emanates from every channel. "Pan's Labyrinth" is one of the more enjoyable sounding films I have yet to witness on Blu-ray.

Extras:

New Line has released "Pan's Labyrinth" on both HD-DVD and Blu-ray and has given both releases a very nice set of supplemental materials. The film will have the curious designation as being the only film released by New Line onto the HD-DVD format. Most of the bonus features appear on the standard definition DVD release as well, but the studio has seen fit to use some of the bonus storage space of the high definition formats and provide an Enhanced Visual Commentary. Bear in mind, this is not a true Picture-in-Picture feature and simply is another encoding of the film with the video commentary added. Oddly, the material of this enhanced visual commentary is pulled entirely from the supplemental materials that are provided on the disc. This just provides another way to watch the bonus materials and it isn't a bad way to experience them, but there is nothing new to see if you've already sat through the other bonus features.

Moving onto the features that are found on both the standard definition and high definition releases, an Audio Commentary with Director Guillermo del Toro is provided, as well as some other nice bits and pieces. The director's commentary is well worth listening to and del Toro spends a good amount of time delving into the details of his story. He nicely balances making-of information with storytelling elements. He is an upbeat personality and his commentary is very good and makes the viewing experience of "Pan's Labyrinth" all the better. Although it is not listed as a bonus feature, a Video Prologue by Writer / Director Guillermo del Toro (:24) is also provided and the film's creator briefly discusses his film to his home video audience.

Del Toro's involvement with the film is not finished with the commentary and prologue. The Director's Notebook is a collection of bonus features with del Toro going into great detail to talk about his beloved creation. Most of the features are interactive stills, but some video footage is also presented. The Introduction (:34) finds the director talking about how this feature contains parts of the notebook he used to write and expand his story for "Pan's Labyrinth." Del Toro's Notes and Sketches is an interactive look at his notebook and is quite interesting to see the genesis of his film. The Storyboard / Thumbnail Compares comes with its own Introduction (:28) and then moves on to a detailed look at four scenes from the film and compares their storyboards to actual scenes (thumbnailed). A VFX Plate Comparison (1:18) finds the director showing off the green fairy from the film. In one pate you can see him moving around a ‘stunt fairy' and then the final scene from the film. The last part of the "Director's Notebook" is a series of Galleries.

A series of Featurettes are also included on the disc. The Power of Myth (14:23) has Guillermo del Toro talking about his influences for "Pan's Labyrinth" and he discusses his beliefs towards fairy tales. This is a very good fifteen minute long featurette. The second featurette, Pan and the Fairies (El Fauno y Las Hadas) (30:27) is a making-of feature that spends a lot of time looking at the creature creations and special effects of the film. The faun, the fairies and the Pale Man are all looked at with good depth and this was a nice featurette that again featured del Toro discussing his film. The Color and the Shape (4:01) is a vignette that talks about the coloring and other elements of cinematography utilized in the film. This is short, but informative. The final featurette in this submenu is broken down into two parts and titled The Lullaby The first part, The Melody Echoes the Fairy Tale (2:47) is a rather brief look at the music by Javier Navarette. The second part, Mercedes Lullaby (2:15) is parts of the song from the film titled "Mercedes Lullaby" and is nothing more than the music set to pictures from the film. It includes piano music, whistling and humming to the lullaby.

A couple other features round out the extras found on the Blu-ray disc. The Charlie Rose Show (49:25) is shown in full frame, standard definition video and is an interview session with veteran talk show host Rose and three Mexican directors that includes del Toro, Alejandro Inaritu and Alfonso Cuaron. This round table discussion looks at the impact that Mexican directors are having on the world of cinema and does take some time to discuss "Pan's Labyrinth." It is an interesting, if not somewhat dry conversation. The Comics submenu contains four brief comic tales that add to the story of "Pan's Labyrinth." The Giant Toad (:40), The Fairies (:30), Pan (:46) and The Pale Man (1:18) all give a very minor amount of information about their relative subjects. A Poster Gallery,, the Theatrical Teaser, Theatrical Trailer and some TV Spots complete the bonus materials.

Closing Comments:

I was blown away by the Blu-ray release of "Pan's Labyrinth." The film contains a wonderful and imaginative story that is wholly the product of writer / director Guillermo del Toro. The inventive story is one of those tales that keeps the viewer's interest for the entire running length and this is one of the best mature fairy tales I have ever seen. Del Toro has put together solid special effects and beautiful cinematography to help this film excel as well technically as it does in storytelling. The sound is stunning as well and only bested by the absolute best titles. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a film you will want to watch with low lighting and with the volume cranked up. The disc contains a wide array of supplemental materials that will easily take a few hours to fully enjoy. While the film is provided in Spanish, the extras are provided in English. Being one of New Line's first titles on the Blu-ray format, they have shown themselves quite capable; as they did with their early Platinum titles on the DVD format. This is a must have for any Blu-ray collection.

Ratings

Video
10
Audio
9
Extras
7
Film Value
9