As in Guillermo del Toro's earlier The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth approaches the political mire of the Spanish Civil War in fabulistic terms. Its protagonist, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), is the daughter of a widow, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), now married to Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a sadistic officer in Franco's army and an enthusiastic exterminator of communists. Surrounded by the dark, cold menace of fascism, Ofelia escapes, either literally or imaginatively, into a fantasy realm populated by creatures and monsters that distract her from the misery of her everyday life.
The film's fantastic creatures naturally draw the eye. The mysterious faun (acted by Doug Jones and voiced by Pablo Adán) who serves as Ofelia's guide into a netherworld where she may or may not be a princess appears to be made of bark and earth, creaking slightly with each step. It gives Ofelia tasks meant to prove her worthiness to the throne, and through him she comes across other creatures like a colossal tree frog whose undulating, jaundiced skin quivers with every breath, as well as fairies who provide assistance.
Del Toro balances Ofelia's quests with her daily life with a handful of plot devices, like a mandrake given to her by the faun that she places under her mother's bed to ease her complicated pregnancy, but for the most part he keeps the realms of the real and fantasy separate. Ofelia's adventures largely exist for their own sake, and for del Toro to wallow in the allure of mythological tales. The standout sequence, of Ofelia venturing into the realm of a hideous, clawed being that sits dormant until food is taken from his table, nods to the story of Orpheus retrieving Persephone from Hades, and the monster's arduously plodding but unstoppable chasing of Ofelia is nothing more than pure horror, albeit of the sort that characterizes Charles Perrault's grisliest children's stories. Besides, the monster's bloodthirst looks almost quaint compared to the heinous, realistic violence of the story's nationalists.
Though one could argue that Ofelia's magical-realist escape from the horrible reality around her ignores the armed conflict seen at the film's margins, the care that del Toro takes with his moments of true atrocity belies that criticism. Despite the fussiness and nerdish obsession of his bricolage, the filmmaker devotes equal attention to the reactions of his characters, be it the combination of elation and terror on Ofelia's face as she ventures on her quests or the dignified resignation to death when Doctor Ferreiro (Álex Angulo) is exposed as a Republican collaborator.
And though Pan's Labyrinth regularly uses occurrences in Ofelia's fantasy world to influence her normal life, del Toro truly reconciles the real and fantastic around the shared importance of stories. It's a fitting theme with which to approach a war where so many were completely annihilated in ideological purges, and it explains why Vidal's true comeuppance isn't death, but the promise that he'll be willfully forgotten by all who knew him. This pledge, even more so than the film's coda, is the true fairy-tale ending.
New Line's original Blu-ray of Pan's Labyrinth was a solid release, albeit one with occasional instances of over-emphasized clean-up that left some images too smooth and artificial. Criterion's Blu-ray, struck from a 2K transfer of the 35mm negative, eliminates these minor issues and producers a naturally cleaner, more lifelike image. The color palette of amber and seafoam green is perfectly balanced, and texture is film-like throughout. Audio is significantly boosted, with a remastered 5.1 track that cleanly separates dialogue and Foley effects. The visual splendor of the film is so overwhelming that it's easy to miss the precise sound design, but the depth of the mix highlights this aspect like never before. And for those with a more intense home-video setup, the disc also comes with an even deeper 7.1 mix.
Almost all the extras from the original New Line release find their way onto this disc, including a gallery of Guillermo del Toro's richly illustrated notebook for the film and his detail-laden commentary track. Also included are four documentaries that cover subjects ranging from the extensive costume work for the creatures to the musical score, as well as effects comparisons and prequel comics. The new material is limited to an interview with Doug Jones, who enthuses about his working relationship with del Toro, and a chat between the filmmaker and Inkheart author Cornelia Funke that covers the literary inspirations of the film as well as del Toro's thoughts on how to appeal to and engage an audience. The disc also comes with a booklet with an essay by Michael Atkinson, who places the film within a context of literary Spanish and Latin magic realism and Spanish-language cinema.
Guillermo del Toro's most thematically ambitious fantasy looks better than ever on Criterion's Blu-ray, and the wealth of extras both new and old make this the film's definitive home-video release.