Judge Dennis Prince makes no attempt to restrain his positive bias for this outstanding film and top-tier HD DVD treatment.
Our review of Pan's Labyrinth: Two-Disc Platinum Series, published May 15th, 2007, is also available.
What happens when make-believe believes it's real?
If you didn't know better, you'd insist that writer/director Guillermo del Toro had endured a difficult childhood. Just as songsmiths insist you must suffer real hardship if you truly want to sing the blues, so, too, would it appear that you must have been subjected to overwhelming hardship in childhood to ever faithfully render a grim fairy tale like Pan's Labyrinth. In this case, however, del Toro has never let on to a troubled youth yet he unleashes an unforgettable "fairy tale" full of vivid horrors that one would have to expect to have been seen to be imagined. Forget the Harry Potter daydreams and the Teribithia dalliances—this tale is stark, stunning, and, yes, wholly irresistible. From the outset, you'll become oddly aware that you are giving in to an entirely different sort of excursion, one not accessed via a looking glass but, rather, entered through the pained eyes of a young girl that is enduring a brutal period just after the Spanish Civil War.
Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a 13-year-old girl who maintains her fanciful imagination healthy thanks to her fascination with fairy tales amid the chilling terrors that surround her in post-Civil War Spain. As she rides along with her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), to meet her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), Ofelia clearly prefers her fantasy world over the real world the adults around her would impose. During their journey, Ofelia encounters a sizable stick bug that she's certain is actually a fairy. Although her mother lightly berates the girl for her childish notion, Ofelia again encounters the fairy and follows it to a mysterious labyrinth in the nearby woods. She descends the spiral stone staircase and meets a hulking but seemingly friendly faun (Doug Jones). Eager to avoid the horrific world where fascist Captain Vidal rules with an iron fist in his quest to find and capture resistance forces, Ofelia learns she is actually a long lost princess who must succeed in completing three unusual tasks to prove her royal lineage. But as she secretly undertakes each task the faun puts before her, she finds the real world is fast encroaching upon her imaginary world and the cost of failure might be even more significant than she ever could have imagined, blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
Although any plot synopsis might suggest Pan's Labyrinth (originally titled El Laberinto del Fauno) is suitable to young audiences, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a visually arresting and emotionally edgy experience that has properly earned it's 'R' rating. As with the original Grimm fairy tales, this is the sort of story that would cause nightmares for young children. The film uses a stark series of graphic scenes to compare and contrast the terrors of a young girl's world, she who's exposed to the senseless violence at the hands of the sadistic Capt. Vidal. While encounters with insect-like fairies, a seemingly rotting and towering faun, and the various other grotesque creatures of this sort should duly send a child screaming in terror, the more frightening aspect here is that this is perfectly manageable to a 13-year-old girl who has seen the real-life horrors of the world around her.
The faun, the earthy yet unsettling creature, strikes visual contrast to the square-jawed and impeccably appointed Vidal. And while Vidal's mill house abode, complete with lavish dining fare, is upper crust among post-war society, it strikes a harsh juxtaposition to the mossy and muddy depths of the labyrinth. Of course, del Toro is hardly subtle in this sort of contrasting, intent to help viewers detect which is the more monstrous, which is the fiend to be feared in this setting. To this end, the film provides us plenty to ponder, visually and thematically, as we sit by and witness the growing danger that closes in on Ofelia, her mother, and those in Vidal's employ who secretly aid the rebels. It's a captivating tale that easily commands your attention within the first five minutes and never releases you from its spell until after the end credits begin to roll.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Pan's Labyrinth is that it dares to tell a non-traditional story in a very non-traditional fashion and, thereby, raises itself above the mundane trappings of a traditional Hollywood film. That is, del Toro's El Laberinto del Fauno freely dispenses with heavy exposition, obvious visual cues, and lowest-common-denominator storytelling, opting to free the audience to discover this particular tale in a way that can render a unique experience for as many seats as there are in a viewing auditorium. As del Toro himself confidently and proudly states, "it's a game of interpretation," yet one that is too infrequently encountered…unless you know where to look. Look no further than Pan's Labyrinth if what you seek is an incredible journey into the realm of the fantastic that leaves an emotional impact to be pondered in the days following a viewing.
New to HD DVD, New Line has delivered a stunning presentation which, sadly, could be one of its last on the red-jacketed format (their announcement to cease HD DVD support, as a subsidiary of defecting parent WB, coming a mere ten days following street date of this release). Truly, this disc is a reference quality achievement in all facets beginning with the striking transfer. The 1080p / VC-1 encoded image, framed at a 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, is one of the best yet seen in either HD format. From the opening sequences where Ofelia encounters the insect fairy, the detail is remarkable, lifelike, and tremendously dimensional. Although the film is a definite challenge to disc authoring teams given the constantly changing color palettes and mostly dark settings, this one excels like few others. Contrast is spot on throughout, black levels are perfectly managed (including top-notch shadow detail, especially within the depths of the labyrinth), and saturation is perfectly controlled despite the production design's intention to consciously over saturate. As if the story itself isn't enough to command repeat viewings, this HD presentation likewise encourages second and third looks (and more). If you're an HD DVD enthusiast, this disc definitely belongs in your high-definition library.
On the audio side, this disc continues along the path to technical excellence with a DTS HD 7.1 Lossless Master Audio track. Rarely has a soundstage emerged and thrived in the new technology as impressively as does this one. Although the opening sequence (the spiraling close up into Ofelia's eye) is contained within the front channels, the subsequent shots of Ofelia's discovery of the insect fairy and its pursuit of her are perfectly punctuated by crisp and well imaged sound effects, all properly supported by Javier Navarrete's emotive score. All channels of the listening area are perpetually in play, from the tiniest flap of fairy wings to the thundering explosions and jarring gunshots. Like the image, this is a reference quality track that is made all the better thanks to the forward-thinking sound designer, Martin Hernandez.
Extras on this disc are the same as are available on the 2-disc DVD release, including del Toro's audio commentary (not to be missed), the collection of fascinating and informative featurettes, production design elements and comparisons, comic excerpts, and more. Exclusive to this HD DVD release is the "Enhanced Visual Commentary," working very much like previous PiP HD DVD enhancements, In-Movie Experience and U-Turn. In this commentary, del Toro's audio commentary is parsed a bit differently and is accompanied by PiP views of the director or members of his crew. Additionally, you can also choose to view production design sketches, set construction details, and storyboards that are relevant to the film as it plays. Although this isn't additional content—this feature repurposes the content within the standard features—it still makes for an enticing new way to watch and discover the details about the production.
All said, Pan's Labyrinth is a superlative film made all the better within this impressive HD DVD release. Don't hesitate to purchase this one for your home library; it's replay value is definitely among the highest around.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Enhanced Visual Commentary (HD exclusive)
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