The world is filled with monsters.
We don't need storytellers to conjure up our demons for us; they're all around us, more hideous and vile than anything we could ever dream up in our poor imaginations. Monsters have always been with us; they always will be with us. It is when we recognize that evil exists--that evil has existed for all time, everywhere, and that that evil is us, within us all--that we truly lose our innocence. It is of these things that Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro reminds us in "Pan's Labyrinth," a dark, grim, and decidedly adult fairy tale. It was one of the best movies of 2006, now looking and sounding better than ever for the home screen in high definition.
We see del Toro following a traditional path here of magical realism (or "marvelous reality"), where elements of magic emerge from an otherwise naturalistic setting to heighten the truth. In this movie, the story revolves around the fantasies of a young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), living under the fascist regime of dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1944, a few years after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War.
Ofelia is a combination of Cinderella and Lewis Carroll's Alice, only she is a very real little girl in a very real place; and coming into young adulthood, she is just beginning to learn what the real world is like. Similar to Cinderella, she must learn to live with a new and uncaring parent, not an evil stepmother this time but an evil step dad. Her real father has died, and her mother has recently remarried a Captain in the Spanish army, Capitan Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a coldhearted brute of a man, whose business it is to round up and execute rebels in the Spanish hills. He is a merciless military man through and through, a butcher who never questions orders and never doubts his loyalty to the Franco government, killing with the ruthless efficiency of a well-oiled and quite malevolent machine. His marriage is more a convenience to produce a son than a commitment to love or romance, either of which he feels would expose him as weak.
Ofelia enters with trepidation into this cold, unfeeling world, an outpost her new father commands, a small, warlike encampment situated in an abandoned farm in the Spanish mountains; and immediately she senses the hostility and her own need to break free. She finds her escape the only way she can--through her vivid child's imagination.
A winged mantis and an old, crumbling, rock labyrinth near the farmhouse are her first steps into a foreboding fantasy world she creates to parallel the real and threatening environment that surrounds her. In a way, then, Ofelia's fairy-tale world symbolizes both the debased world she sees around her, the brutal world of Franco's Spain in the 1940s, filled as it was with bloodshed and corruption, and her fantasy world, an escape from it. Del Toro intends these ambiguities to give us a glimpse into the child's confused and frightened mind and to remind us of the choices we all make growing up.
In her dream world, Ofelia meets fairies and fauns, with Pan (Doug Jones) setting her a series of tasks, quests, to carry out, freakish adventures involving giant toads and nearly eyeless ogres. If she can just carry out these assignments obediently, unflinchingly, the faun promises her rewards beyond her wildest dreams. But the film is not entirely doom, gloom, and adventure, for like all good fairy tales, it carries with it much meaning. Mostly, this meaning has to do with choices--the choices we make to think for ourselves or to blindly follow orders, to be good, decent human beings or to become...monsters like the one we see in her stepfather. Through Ofelia's experiences, we learn more about what it means to be human and how we might all attain eternal happiness. Through the darkness and despair, del Toro shines a bright light of comfort and warmth, yet it is a light that never slips into sentimentality, not even for a minute.
It is hard to fault this film on any level. Twelve-year-old Ivana Baquero dominates every scene more than anyone else in the story, more so than one could ask of any seasoned, veteran actress let alone one of her age. Her coming-of-age is both poignant and horrific. What's more, her fellow actors are equally compelling, especially Sergi Lopez as the stonyhearted stepfather. His character would as much see Ofelia dead as look at her, yet we also see in the character the hatred he must feel toward himself, and we see his subtle desire for suicide. It is a remarkable performance. Nor can we overlook Doug Jones's seemingly benign yet vaguely sinister Pan or Maribel Verdu's sensitive portrayal of the housekeeper, Mercedes. It is as good an ensemble cast as you are likely to find in any motion picture of any year.
Still, this is above all del Toro's movie. It is his vision and imagination that carry the day, an ingenuity that served him well in the past in such outright horror flicks as "Blade II," "Hellboy," and the much underappreciated "Mimic." However, "Pan's Labyrinth" more closely resembles his 2001 film "The Devil's Backbone," which carried the tagline "The living are always more dangerous than the dead." Very true, and "Pan" is a continuation of that theme, a companion piece, so it is not a coincidence that it is also set in the milieu of Franco's Spain.
Add to the superb script, the superb acting, and the superb directing some superb visual effects, superb cinematography, superb set design, and a superbly haunting musical score by Javier Navarrete, and you get a movie that is not easy to forget. It is a multifaceted film of worlds within worlds that works at all levels and touches one in every direction. We feel pity, terror, disgust, wonder, astonishment, shock, and, ultimately, hope. It does everything we could ask of a great motion picture.
In its 1080, VC-1 HD DVD transfer, the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio fills out a 16x9 widescreen television nicely. The video engineers maintain deep black levels and a clear, clean screen, the picture quality looking pretty much as I remember it from its theatrical release. However, I am one of the few people who didn't think the movie looked all that good in a theater, the colors seeming a bit too oversaturated for my taste, the facial hues too yellowish or too orangish, and the overall appearance too glossy. Of course, I'm sure this was del Toro's intention, to present better his idea of a fantasy world within a real world. So, although the colors may not be entirely normal or natural, neither is the film's story entirely normal or natural.
I have little doubt the HD DVD transfer remains faithful to the film's original print. The image is crisply detailed and delineated. The lush greens and browns of the forest show up well, and everything has an appropriate fairy-tale quality to it. A small warning, though: the film is violent and bloody, and the high-definition reproduction only intensifies the brutality. If you're at all squeamish at the sight of blood, seeing it in all its pristine glory may not be entirely right for you.
New Line provide the movie with some of the finest audio I've heard in quite some time, a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. "Pan's Labyrinth" is in the main a quiet film, the music a soft lullaby, yet there are many moments of intense drama and horrific effects, too, of which the sound is very much a part. Appropriately, the new high-definition audio displays a very wide frequency response from lowest bass to highest treble; an extremely wide dynamic range from the softest flicker of leaves to the loudest gunshots and explosions; a strong, visceral impact, with exceptionally fast transient attacks; and an impressive low end, taut and deep. Equally important, though, there are subtle nuances that encircle the listener in the surrounds, especially evident during the forest and labyrinth scenes--noises in the forest, the "fairy" sounds of insects flittering around, and, of course, the inevitable thunder and rain. "Pan" has quite a lovely yet powerful soundtrack, and it easily takes its place alongside "Letters from Iwo Jima" as one of my sonic reference standards.
New Line have carried over all of the extras from their two-disc special-edition DVD package to this HD DVD and added two more important items: an Enhanced Video Commentary (picture in picture) and some Web-enabled features available through your HD player's Internet connection. Del Toro introduces and narrates the Enhanced Video Commentary, which includes picture inserts of him and others of the filmmakers explaining things to us, plus two more options: productions galleries and storyboards that appear on the side of the screen and link-outs that take you deeper into the moviemaking. You can watch the Enhanced version of the movie with any one or all of the features enabled. In addition, the HD DVD's several Web bonuses include a scene shuffle and share, some trivia, highlights, polls, and a New Line portal.
Among the repeat items, there is a very brief prologue by del Toro and the director's uncommonly analytical, informative, no-nonsense audio commentary. If you're serious about the film, you might want to get serious about the audio commentary as well as the Enhanced Video Commentary.
The next items are all in standard definition. Among them, we find a set of brief featurettes that the disc's producer might well have combined into a single documentary. They are "The Power of Myth," fourteen minutes, in which the director discusses the story idea; "Pan and the Fairies," thirty minutes, in which the director discusses the movie's creatures and their design; and "The Color and The Shape," four minutes, in which the director discusses his choice of color palette.
After those, there is a section on the film's marketing campaign that includes poster art, trailers, and TV spots, followed by a "Charlie Rose Show" episode in which the host converses with filmmakers del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Then, there are some DVD Comics, animated sequences from the film; a "Director's Notebook" containing del Toro's preliminary notes and sketches for the movie; a multi-angle storyboard and VFX plate comparison; and various galleries of creature design, production design, and the like.
Things conclude with twenty-two scene selections but no chapter insert; Spanish as the only spoken language; English and Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; pop-up menus; and an Elite Red HD case.
Be aware that despite the seeming fairy-tale motif of "Pan's Labyrinth," it is quite a harsh film, and its violence, while always at the service of the story, is most certainly too intense for youngsters. It carries an R rating for the ferocity of its bloodshed, as well it should. Please, do not be mislead into thinking the movie is a children's fantasy. It most assuredly is not.
The organization to which I belong, the Online Film Critics Society, voted "Pan's Labyrinth" the best Foreign Language Film of 2006. More important, the Wife-O-Meter, who is a far more demanding critic than anyone in the OFCS, gave the film a 9.998/10 vote. Who am I to argue?