Pan's Labyrinth: Platinum Series Review
As part of the triumvirate of Mexican filmmakers that also includes Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo Del Toro is undoubtedly the fantasist. Like Cuarón, whose work includes both the intimate, independent Y Tu Mamá También and the blockbuster Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Del Toro has managed to carve a successful career in both Hollywood and the world of independent filmmaking, contrasting big budget commercial ventures like Blade II and Hellboy with lower key, more personal material like Chronos and The Devil's Backbone. And yet, despite flitting between two decidedly different industries, his films always bear the same distinctive stamp: a sense that he is able to invest his own personal view in the most commercial of films, while at the same time ensuring that his more personal projects still have considerable audience appeal. Ultimately, Del Toro is perhaps best described as someone who makes artistic commercial films and commercial art films.
Pan's Labyrinth reflects the zenith of this synthesis. When you actually boil down the individual components, it really shouldn't work as mainstream, crowd-pleasing entertainment: quite apart from the dialogue being spoken in a language other than English (still often the kiss of death for the US box office), its distinctive interpretation of fairytale mythology could potentially be quite off-putting to those raised in the Disneyesque tradition, believing that fables like Alice in Wonderland and Red Riding Hood are safe and cozy, and that fairytales are only for children. Pan's Labyrinth is most assuredly not a children's film: it is a dark fairytale for adults and one that has managed to succeed both critically and commercially, on its own terms.
Taking place in 1944, at the height of the Spanish civil war, the film revolves around Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a precocious young girl with a fascination for fairytales and make-believe. While she and her heavily pregnant mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), are staying with her new stepfather, the cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi López), in an isolated house in the countryside, Ofelia comes into contact with an ancient faun (Doug Jones, behind several layers of prosthetics), who informs her that she is in fact the daughter of the King of the Underworld, and must return to her rightful place. As conflict rages in the world outside, with Vidal his men determined to stamp out the rebel presence in the local woods through any means necessary, Ofelia descends deeper and deeper into the world of the supernatural, which increasingly comes to mirror reality, or vice versa.
This is a film that has been marketed almost exclusively around its fantasy content, but in reality this is somewhat misleading. While it is certainly true that a considerable amount of the film involves mysterious, otherworldly creatures and spectacular locales, the bulk of its running time actually takes place in a world that is all too real. By setting the fantasy elements against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, which is portrayed very convincingly and with commendable attention to detail, they take on an air of authenticity that they arguably would not have had if set in the present day. Del Toro cleverly deconstructs the traditional fairytale structure, blending elements from Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Hood and even, to some extent, more recent fare such as The Chronicles of Narnia, creating reflections of several fairytale staples in the real world. The cruel and relentless Captain Vidal, for example, represents the Big Bad Wolf, while Ofelia is fairly obviously the Alice/Red Riding Hood/Snow White surrogate. Even subtle details in the production design, such as the manner in which the layout of the monstrous Pale Man's dining room mimics that of Captain Vidal (which might not be noticed on first or even second and third viewings of the film), add to the film's texture and demonstrate the extent to which Del Toro has taken pains to create a thread of cohesion to the two worlds.
In a sense, it's easy to see why the advertising, and the majority of the reviews, have focused so heavily on the fantasy: while the material set in the real world is gripping, immaculately shot and powerfully acted, the scenes taking place in the fairytale world are on another level entirely. The production is exquisite, the sheer attention to detail often breathtaking, and the various creatures that Ofelia meets, especially the faun and the Pale Man, are astounding not only for their imaginative design but also for their acting. Both are played by Doug Jones, the stuntman with whom Del Toro also worked on Mimic and Hellboy, and each exhibit completely individual personalities. The Pale Man especially is a masterpiece: clearly the product of a warped imagination, this faceless monster, excess skin drooping from its gaunt frame, sees by placing detached eyes in stigmata wounds in its hands. The extended sequence revolving around this character is like something out of a nightmare: totally unreal and yet at the same time instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Grimm's fairytales.
To some extent, you can argue that Del Toro overplays his hand by attempting to draw parallels between fantasy and reality. In interviews, he has argued convincingly that the horrors of fairytales provide an outlet for our fears and help us to understand the horrors of reality, but, as Peter Bradshaw pointed out in his review in The Guardian, the creatures don't really have anything to say about the fascism of 1944 Spain, and vice versa. Likewise, his claims that, in order to preserve the fairytale structure the characters must remain somewhat two-dimensional don't ring entirely true. Additionally, as brilliant as the practical effects and make-up are, certain elements, particularly the fairies that "guide" Ofelia and a giant toad that she encounters, are obviously computer generated. But these are small fry in the grand scheme of things: Pan's Labyrinth is definitely one of the best fantasy-oriented horror films in recent years, and one which comes very close to being a masterpiece.
Presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the transfer for Pan's Labyrinth is typical New Line fare: the encoding is decent, the colours are saturated (magnificently so), and the contrast is rich, but there is basically little fine detail to speak of. It's not as edge enhanced as, say, Final Destination 3 (which, for a recent mainstream film, looked absolutely awful on DVD), but at times it feels as if you're looking through a misted up window, because objects that should be crisp and detailed look fuzzy and indistinct. In addition, everything from around the 90-minute mark onwards has been incorrectly flagged as interlaced rather than progressive, which will lead so some problems if your DVD player and display are not good at automatically detecting film-sourced material.
The audio comes in three flavours, all of them Spanish (no dubs here, thankfully): stereo surround, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete. Unsurprisingly, the latter is the way to go if you have the means to play it, and it's a solid track, albeit not an exceptional one. The audio design is rich but fairly subtle, and those looking for round-the-clock positional audio effects will be somewhat disappointed. The rear channels are used sparingly, generally kicking in to accentuate ambient effects, or for the occasional magical flourish as a fairy flies in or out of frame.
The optional English (and Spanish) subtitles, meanwhile, are legible and seemingly accurate, but rather large and blocky, which distracts somewhat from the film's marvellous visuals.
The version reviewed here is the 2-disc Platinum Series edition. A version which omits the second disc is also available.
Disc 1 begins with a video introduction by Guillermo Del Toro, which is short, light-hearted and to the point. He returns later for an audio commentary, which turns out to be one of the best I've heard so far this year. Del Toro is always an engaging, intelligent and humorous speaker, and he keeps the track ticking over single-handedly, with nary a moment of silence throughout its two-hour duration. In addition to discussing issues such as the financial problems when putting the project together, the actors, and the challenges of working the fairytale narrative into the real world material, he goes to considerable lengths to deconstruct the structure, calling attention to the moments in which the real and make-believe worlds mirror each other, and pointing out the parallels between the characters in the film and their fairytale archetypes. Some might consider Del Toro to be revealing his hand here, and that such subtleties should be left to the viewer to discover in their own time, but personally this track left me with a new appreciation of the sheer amount of detail that had been put into the film.
The first disc also contains a marketing gallery, which features poster concepts from various territories, in addition to the American teaser and theatrical trailers, and TV spots.
Disc 2 is broken into various sections, the most packed of which is Featurettes. There are four pieces in this section, of various lengths, with the longest being the 30-minute Pan and the Fairies, which looks at the various prosthetic and computer-generated effects in the film, while the shortest, the 4-minute The Colour and the Shape, contains a discussion of the visual differences between the real and fairytale worlds. The best featurette, in my opinion, is the 14-minute The Power of Myth, in which Del Toro discusses the various fairytale archetypes that made their way into the film. Finally, The Lullaby contains a brief discussion of the main theme music found in the film, as well as a 2-minute progression demonstration, taking the piece from composer Javier Navarrete's original demo tape all the way to the version heard in the final film.
The Director's Notebook, meanwhile, contains a reproduction of the notebook of conceptual ideas that Del Toro put together during the long period of gestation between his coming up with the initial concept for Pan's Labyrinth and the point at which the film actually went into production. Each two-page spread is presented as a static screen, many of which as "clickable", leading to brief video "pods" in which Del Toro explains the sketch in question in more detail. It's a nice idea, but personally I would have appreciated an index collecting all of the pods in a single, easily accessible list. Also included is a multi-angle storyboard to final film comparison, and an extensive gallery featuring conceptual artwork and models, as well as photographs taking during the film's production.
However, I feel that the best of the extras included on the second disc is an episode of The Charlie Rose Show, which interviews the "big three" Mexican filmmakers - Del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. While the amount of material specific to Pan's Labyrinth is fairly limited, simply having these three filmmaking giants gathered together in the same room for 49 minutes is a magnificent treat, and one that really gives an insight into their relationship with each other, as well as the distinct differences in their individual methods and styles.
The second disc concludes with a series of four DVD Comics, each of which provides a back-story for one of the various creatures found in the labyrinth. They have a collective running time of about three minutes, and are not particularly interesting, but they serve as a nice, if curious, addition.
A wealth of additional material is also found in DVD-ROM form, including the original screenplay and a massive gallery of storyboards, photos and other miscellaneous artwork. Unfortunately, in order to access this content, you will have to wrangle with the hideous InterActual player that New Line insists on including on all of its DVDs. I couldn't actually get the storyboards to display at all on my system, as clicking the relevant button crashed the program instantly, and I eventually had to give up.
New Line have served Pan's Labyrinth extremely well in terms of audio and bonus content, but as is usually the case the lacklustre image quality lets the side down.
(It is my understanding that the UK release by Optimum fares somewhat better in terms of its transfer, but is missing the DTS track and a number of the extras from the US release. An HD DVD release, meanwhile, is expected in France at some point in July, but its lack of English subtitles and high price tag - it is packaged as a 5-disc set with the film in standard definition, the original soundtrack CD, and various additional bonuses - is likely to put viewers off.)
8 out of 10
6 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10