Criterion Review: PAN’S LABYRINTH

by Jon Partridge

Whether it’s his Spanish language films such as Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, or larger budget US studio work with Blade II, Hellboy, Pacific Rim (sword!), and Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro has shown himself to be an incredible filmmaker. Not just in terms of storytelling, but through his mastery of the visual aesthetic, with his creations on screen coming from his notebooks, full of scrawls and sketches drawn from deep in his own psyche. The man is a gleefully enthusiastic lover of film, demonstrated by the incredible exhibition he opened up in LA this year. Most of us will not get out there, so thanks to Criterion we have the next best thing: a stunning release of del Toro’s greatest work, Pan’s Labyrinth.


An Academy Award–winning dark fable set five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth encapsulates the rich visual style and genre-defying craft of Guillermo del Toro. Eleven-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in a mature and tender performance) comes face to face with the horrors of fascism when she and her pregnant mother are uprooted to the countryside, where her new stepfather (Sergi López), a sadistic captain in General Francisco Franco’s army, hunts down Republican guerrillas refusing to give up the fight. The violent reality in which Ofelia lives merges seamlessly with her fantastical interior world when she meets a faun in a decaying labyrinth and is set on a strange, mythic journey that is at once terrifying and beautiful. In his revisiting of this bloody period in Spanish history, del Toro creates a vivid depiction of the monstrosities of war infiltrating a child’s imagination and threatening the innocence of youth.

El Laberinto del Fauno (The Labyrinth of the Faun), aka Pan’s Labyrinth, has garnered near unanimous praise since its release in 2006. Oscar nominations for Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language Film, and Oscar wins in Art Direction, Cinematography, and Makeup burnish its credentials, as does its recent placement at 17 in a BBC poll of the Greatest Films of the 21st Century. The film invokes themes familiar to del Toro’s other works, real life colliding with the fantastical with a backdrop of lush, creative visuals.

The story is told from a child’s viewpoint, but it’s a very adult tale. Ofelia is mired in an ugly world. War and persecution surrounds her. She finds a form of escape after an encounter with a faun, a mysterious creature who entices her into a series of quests to test whether she is the lost princess of a underworld kingdom. Quested with unusual tasks, she encounters even more unusual creatures in a journey that mirrors the real world but offers a more tangible sense of hope. The ambiguity and allure of the creatures she encounters contrast with her life, notably her stepfather Capitán Vidal (Sergi López). In a movie populated by haunting creatures, he is surely the worst. He embodies what so much of the film is about, the collision of fantasy with a very ugly reality. This is reinforced by contrasting palettes — the brutal realism of the cold, war-torn Spanish countryside, with the more organic and inviting netherworld. Del Toro juxtaposes all these facets to create something very special, each element harmoniously interwoven with the others.

Pan’s Labyrinth is not just about escape, but choice. Female figures in the film suggest the end point of Ofelia’s journey depends on the path she takes. The backdrop of fascist tyranny also brings in the ideas of collusion or rebellion. It’s a fantastical adventure that also serves as a parable about the horrors of war. It’s in the final act when the blurred lines between realities are ended, or perhaps Ofelia’s ultimate choice is made. There is much to interpret in the film. Is this fantasy a construct for the girl to escape, or is it a real sanctuary, offering her peace from the harshness of her life? It’s a credit to del Toro that it’s so open to interpretation. The real life moments in Pan’s Labyrinth are as visceral and well formed as his fantastical sequence are imaginative, textured, and enticing. Simply put, Pan’s Labyrinth is the type of film that gives a director the label “visionary.”


The booklet accompanying the release includes this paragraph: “For its theatrical release, the film was completed in 2K digital intermediate finishing process from the 35mm original camera negative. That digital intermediate provided the highest level of faithfulness to director Guillermo del Toro’s original vision. For this release, further color changes were made throughout the feature to fully realize that vision.” So Criterion went back to this original 2K scan and used it for this new release. The director himself was also involved in supervising the transfer. The result is stunning. The Blu-ray shows a new level of crispness and detail. A natural lushness permeates the film; colors pop, blacks are deep. What was already one of del Toro’s best looking films looks better than ever. The aforementioned booklet also contains an essay on the film’s themes and message by critic Michael Atkinson. The release features new original art cover by Becky Cloonan.

Special features include content from previous home video releases, notably an audio commentary with del Toro recorded in 2007. The man is a font of knowledge with a passion for cinema, and his commentary is one of the more interesting and informative I’ve heard on a home video release, touching on inspirations, themes, structure, and overall style of the film.

Also included from 2007 are four documentaries. The Power of Myth charts the era the film was set in and how the Spanish civil war was folded into the tale. Pan and the Fairies focuses on the various creatures in the film, their design and technical execution. The Color and the Shape deals with the aesthetic crafted by del Toro in the film, and The Melody Echoes the Fairy Tale is about the collaboration of the director with composer Javier Navarrete on the soundtrack.

Special features also include a Interactive director’s notebook, showing del Toro’s sketches for this world and the creatures he filled it with. This is complimented by a series of video comparisons for several scenes, showing the process of taking a concept (del Toro’s sketches) to final product. Rounding things off is footage of actor Ivana Baquero’s audition for the film, 4 animated comics that serve as a prequel to the movie, and a number of trailer and TV spots.

New content for this Criterion release includes an interview with actor Doug Jones, a man regularly used by del Toro in his features. He details his approach to his roles as both the Faun and Pale Man, the prosthetics used, and how the behavior was shaped through collaboration with the director. The biggest new addition is an interview of del Toro by novelist Cornelia Funke. In their conversation, lasting around 40 minutes, they discuss his childhood and inspirations for the film, notably the impact of fairy tales. Again, hearing del Toro talk film is a genuine pleasure, adding to the already deep appreciation people will have for this and his other works.


The match of Criterion and Guillermo del Toro is one made in heaven. Pan’s Labyrinth is del Toro’s greatest work, his imagination unleashed to unparalleled visual and emotional effect. Weaving together the fantastical with a grounded horror element makes for a mesmerizing piece of filmmaking. A hauntingly beautiful fable for the ages is done justice by Criterion.

Pan’s Labyrinth is available from Criterion on 17th October 2016.

Previous post Austin Film Festival 2016: THE BIG FLIP
Next post Stop in for a Drink at the ROAD HOUSE