In the later months of 2006, I began seeing trailers on TV for a film called Pan’s Labyrinth. Initially I thought it was some new, hokey horror film from Stephen King (I later learned King’s name was used in a reference to his praise for the film, calling it “The best film of the year.”). Months passed and eventually it garnered six academy award nominations, including one for Best Foreign Language Film. Before the film disappeared from theaters, I made the trek to go see it and within minutes of the film opening, it was clear to me from the start why the film was generating so much praise. Not only was it a visual feast for your eyes (“eye protein”, as del Toro calls it), but the story was rich and enthralling, even for those that didn’t speak Spanish. Don’t let the fact that the movie has no English track deter you from seeing the film—it’s so beautifully well-done that one could watch it without subtitles and still understand that is going on (though obviously don’t make that your first viewing).

Pan’s Labyrinth follows the story of a young girl, Ofelia, who loves fairy tales. When she arrives at the residence of her new “father”, Ofelia discovers a labyrinth near the house. Through a series of events, she is led through the labyrinth and is taken to a faun, Pan (although he is never referred to as such in the film, as “Pan” is merely the English translation of the Spanish title of the film, which is essentially “The Faun’s Labyrinth”—Pan is more marketable as well, I suppose), who tells her that she is a princess reborn in a mortal body. To prove she is not fully consumed by mortals, she most complete three tasks before the full moon, so that she can open the portal to the Underworld where her father reigns and waits for her.

All the while Ofelia is exploring and completing these tasks, we follow the story of the vicious Capitán Vidal, who is defending his town from soldiers that are leftover from the 1944 Spanish Civil War. While the stories of Ofelia and Vidal start out worlds apart, they merge into a crossroads at the end of the film, eventually ending in a shocking finale. Even after viewing the movie three times, the ending still surprises me, not only for its shock value but because of its emotional impact and poignancy.

One thing that’s easy to do with foreign language films is ignore the terrific acting. Despite not understanding the language, the acting in this film is so strong that the dialect they’re speaking doesn’t matter. As with all del Toro films, he focuses on the face and eyes and the look they give. He always manages to pick actors that can showcase the movements he needs them to make to progress the story and scene along. Doug Jones also does a lot with the body language of the faun as well, making the creaky movements early on and the more graceful walking as the film progresses. His work as the Pale Man is also supremely frightening, especially when he outstretches his hand and begins stumbling forward (a scene del Toro mentions on the DVD commentary that made even Stephen King squirm in his seat). All around the movie packs powerful acting performances, ranging from the simple dialogue transactions to the more subtle body language details.

As mentioned before, the movie is a true visual wonder, giving the viewer as many beautifully staged and directed shots as it does acting performances. Each shot is set up perfectly by del Toro and crew and there’s not a single shot in the film that sticks out in my mind that could be done differently or seemed awkward in some way. The color changing throughout the film and the finale scenes with Ofelia reuniting with her father and mother in the underworld are also wondrous shots (and are seen in the trailers for the film, likely to give the film a greater “fairy tale” appeal), with the gold and red hues thrown around the underworld’s majestic imagery.

While some may find the film’s end disappointing with the dramatic outcome of Ofelia and Vidal, it cannot be denied that this film is well deserving of every one of its many awards, both physical (Oscars) and critical (it’s on over 130 top ten lists). The film is beautifully told and Guillermo del Toro solidifies his position as one of the more brilliant directors and storytellers of our time. This film is not to be missed and should be seen as soon as possible when the DVD streets mid-May.

As with a growing number of movie releases lately, Pan’s Labyrinth comes in single and two-disc flavors. The first disc on both releases is identical, containing the film, four audio tracks (6.1 DTS Discrete, 5.1 Dolby Surround, Dolby Surround, and director’s commentary), video prologue and the marketing campaign. The two-disc set has a dedicated second disc to all the behind-the-scenes featurettes and extra interviews and directors materials.

Packaging for this release comes in a standard two-disc amaray case with an embossed foil slip-cover (and a sticker on the cardboard slip stating it’s awards and special features on the disc). While I prefer the single discs art more, the embossed cover does give the two-disc some appeal as it makes the faun more menacing and more like a horror symbol than one would originally imagine. One nice thing about the cardboard slip is that it doesn’t merely repeat the art on the rear cover and instead contains a more “blown up” image with less text. Disc art is clean and clear and menus are all fully animated and beautiful to look at as well.

The video and audio on this release, I’m sad to say, is slightly disheartening. While the 6.1 DTS mix rivals the 5.1 track in terms of clarity and surround experience (in particular, the first encounter with the faun, the fairies travel through the speakers and the train explosion sound marvelous with the DTS track), the 5.1 track is nothing to scoff at either. Still, if you have the necessary equipment, the DTS track is the better movie experience. The video for the release contains a fair amount of ghosting/interlacing. Perhaps it was originally hot with a faster FPS than NTSC video handles, I’m not sure—but whatever the case, the film has some ghosting going on that’s especially noticeable on sets when the reds come into play, particularly the end when the fires and explosions light the dark house and woods, causing the red levels to amplify and cause some nasty compression/ghosting combinations. Still, I didn’t notice the ghosting at all until this point in the film, so it’s not a horrible transfer, but I’m slightly baffled as to why this happened on such a high-profile release.

On the special features front, this release is packed. Including commentary we’re looking at near four hours of bonus material, ranging from behind the scenes material to featurettes. Starting out on the first disc there’s a film intro by del Toro which is actually kind of useless (it runs at about forty seconds and he doesn’t say a whole lot other than the film made him lose a lot of weight), but the full length commentary may very well be one of the most interesting commentaries I’ve ever read. It’s only del Toro for the entire two hours of the film, but he pauses only once for a split second in the commentary, the rest of it is filled with his thoughts on the film, the production process, how the actors were chosen and even intricacies of the film I never noticed (the faun heads above every door and at the bottom of the stairs, the resemblance of the mandrake root to the vegetables being cut in the kitchen, , the faun’s physical changes from the start of the film to the finish and Ofelia’s not eating dinner causing her to be hungry enough to eat grapes from the Pale Man’s chamber). More than once I found myself opening my mouth to say “oh wow!” by how much I missed while watching this film, both in theaters and again on DVD. He also points out the gradual change in color pallets throughout the film, when they begin to bleed together and how some later scenes mirror earlier ones with their layouts and whipes. Perhaps it’s because I enjoyed the film so much on its own, but this commentary is at the top of my list for most enjoyable. It was insightful, entertaining and completely enjoyable—if you enjoyed the film in the least, check out the commentary. It’s an amazing listen to hear just how much del Toro loves the film and what he had to go through to defend his visual and casting choices.

Moving onto the second disc we get a nice amount of extras. There are three featurettes, covering the story of the film itself, the prosthetic and visual effects and color choices in the film. These featurettes feature interviews with some of the crew on the show, and very few of the cast. In fact, only two members of the cast are actually heard from, Doug Jones (who plays the faun and the Pale Man [brilliantly, I might add]) and Ivana Baquero (Ofelia). I assume since they’re all Spanish actors they didn’t want to translate a bunch of stuff for the Region 1 DVD release (although they did translate all of the crews dialogue, obviously). Still, it’s a shame we couldn’t have heard some of the thoughts the actors had about the film, as some of the casting choices were apparently controversial, as Sergi López, who played Capitán Vidal, was apparently a comedic actor prior to Pan’s Labyrinth

After the featurettes is a full episode of the Charlie Rose show, which features del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The show runs nearly an hour long and is well worth watching, as you can tell the three directors are all really good friends who enjoy critiquing each others work. While theres not much revealed about Pan’s Labyrinth here, anyone who is a fan of these directors (and with Cuarón being responsible for recently acclaimed Children of Men and Iñárritu for Babel, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t a fan of this trio at this point in time) should check out this episode of Charlie Rose. It’s a lot of fun to watch and we get some neat insight on the editing processes of their films and how each one of them helps the other out during the lengthy process.

Comics are up next and they’re in “animated” form. They’re essentially static panels with some moving characters throughout them. I recognize Mignola as being the artist for the Pale Man story, but the others I can’t pinpoint. Still, they’re neat to watch since they give us some backstory into the lower-profile characters.

Director’s Notebook shows excerpts from del Toro’s notebook, which he always keeps on hand to write notes in and draw in. The neat thing about this is there are actual videos that go with some of the pages, showing us how the ideas went from their initial stages to what we finally got on the screen. Combined with the storyboards and VFX plate comparisons on the disc, these videos show us just how much goes into creating a film from start to finish.

The extra DVD-ROM features this time around aren’t entirely worthless. The InterActual bonus features include the original shooting script (in both English and Spanish) and higher-res shots of storyboards, creature design and the production scrapbook.

Overall this two-disc of Pan’s Labyrinth is a wonderful collection of the film and the production that went along with it. While the cast and crew interviews could have been more plentiful, the superb directors commentary on the film more than makes up for what the actors could have said, I only wish del Toro spoke through the credits about the film as well. Still, even with the minor weak points of the film (video transfer included), this release is a Must Own. The film is beautiful and so is this DVD, so break out the comfy chair when watching this movie, you’re in for a fantastic ride, one full of fairy tales, wonder and “eye protein.”

Pan’s Labyrinth arrives on DVD May 15th in both single and two-disc editions.

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