El laberinto del fauno—released in non-Spanish-speaking territories as Pan’s Labyrinth for whatever reason—is a fantasy film for people who have no patience for fantasy. It’s a war film for people who don’t like war films. It’s a fairy tale for people who prefer the Brothers Grimm to Disney. It’s allegory that avoids so many of the lazy conventions that made J.R.R. Tolkien such a vehement detractor of allegory. It’s a rich and nuanced, deeply symbolic and personal work that I believe will go down in
history as Guillermo del Toro’s best, topping even El espinazo del diablo (aka The Devil’s Backbone), with which it shares a lot of thematic and narrative similarities.
If it weren’t obvious from the above gushing, I’m an unabashed devotee of this haunting little film. But I’ve never really been overly thrilled with any of its home video releases. The
original Blu-ray from 2007 was excessively smoothed and de-noised, robbing the imagery of much of its grit and impact. It also suffered from lackluster black levels, which is a sin for a film that lives so unapologetically in the shadows.
The Criterion Collection release from 2016 was a vast improvement, thanks in part to the contributions of del Toro himself, who supervised a new color grade and a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. But that release dropped at a time when I was already spoiled by HDR, so I couldn’t help but be distracted by the lack thereof, and the richer shadow detail a UHD release would bring with it.
Fast forward to 2019, and we finally have that UHD/HDR release—not from Criterion, but rather Warner Bros. Unsurprisingly, this release isn’t sourced from the same regraded transfer as the 2016 Blu-ray, which one has to assume is owned by
Criterion. And that’s a bit of a shame, because the superior color timing of that transfer plus the improvements brought by HDR would make for a near-perfect representation of this film.
Make no mistake about it: The UHD/HDR is a big improvement over the original Blu-ray release, despite being sourced
from the same 2K digital intermediate. Black levels are vastly deeper, shadow detail is much improved, depth of field and edge definition are a substantial step up, and the frustrating, plasticky smoothness of the original HD release is thankfully a thing of the past. The grain of the original 35mm negative, though not pronounced or distracting, gives this new transfer an earthiness that greatly benefits it. It’s even an improvement over the Criterion release in terms of contrasts and dynamic range. I just wish a few of the key color-grading changes del Toro made for Criterion could have been incorporated here.
I’m picking nits, of course, if only because I adore this beautiful work so deeply. I do need to get a little pedantic about what I mean by “beautiful,” though. While an utter treat for the eyes from a cinephile’s perspective, Pan’s Labyrinth is not videophile demo material. This is, after all, a low-budget Mexican film, shot for less than $20 million. There is some softness to the image, some rough edges and textures here and there, and some compromises that result from the original digital intermediate that could only be rectified by a full-scale restoration sourced from the original film negatives. That would mean
re-rendering the computer-generated effects, which—to be frank—don’t entirely hold up to scrutiny, especially in this more revealing UHD transfer.
Thankfully, though, most of the effects work is practical, with heavy reliance on makeup, costuming, and animatronics. (del Toro fans will immediately
recognize longtime collaborator Doug Jones beneath tons of latex as both the Faun and the Pale Man—two of the film’s creepiest fantastical creatures—if only due to his inimitable pantomime and distinctive lithe physique.)
This Warner Bros. release oddly does carry over the new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack from the Criterion release, which I suppose could be considered a downgrade from the 7.1-channel track of the original Blu-ray in terms of channel count, but is undeniably a subtle upgrade in every other respect. Honestly, you won’t miss the extra channels. But if you comprehend any Spanish, you’ll appreciate the enhanced dialogue intelligibility, as well as the improved clarity and spatial refinement of the mix. And, hey, if don’t hable español, the English subtitles for this film were actually written by del Toro himself, due in large part to his frustration with the awful translated subtitles for El espinazo del diablo.
All of the above, I guess, is a roundabout way of saying if you love El laberinto del fauno and want to view it at its best, this new UHD/HDR release is that, just by a hair. It’s worth the upgrade even if you own the Criterion Blu-ray release, if only because its remaining flaws are less distracting.
But if you’re averse to dark parables and are simply looking for demo material to stress every pixel of your 4K display, you can probably safely pass. This isn’t a mindless, feel-good film. It’s a challenging and at times troubling look at the stark realities of
war (actually, technically, the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, as the film is set in Francoist Spain in 1944) and the dual-edged sword of escapism from such horrors. It’s also, though, a wondrous and magical fable that defiantly spits in the face of the notion that fantasy films cannot be serious art.
By the way, for those of you who pick up the new UHD release on Kaleidescape, know that you’ll need to download the Blu-ray version included with your purchase if you want to access the bonus features. And you do. Granted, a few key goodies from the Criterion release are missing (I’ll certainly be hanging onto that physical release for the exclusive interview with del Toro and novelist Cornelia Funke), but what’s presented here still counts as a wealth of supplemental material that genuinely adds value and insight into not only the filmmaking process, but also the deep symbolism of the film. Granted, two of those supplements—the short documentary “The Power of Myth” and the audio commentary by del Toro—do rob you of the opportunity to interpret some of the story’s more ambiguous aspects for yourself, so make sure you’ve seen the movie a few times, as least, to solidify your own interpretations.
The truly great thing about El laberinto del fauno, though, is that it rewards multiple re-watches, even after you think you’ve got it all figured out (in terms of
meaning, that is; narratively speaking, it’s an incredibly simple tale that requires no parsing). I hesitate to recommend buying the film sight-unseen, if only for the fact that some viewers (my wife included) find the ruthlessness of the film’s human antagonists too much to bear. Try as I might, she can’t bring herself to give it a second chance. And that’s fair. But I would argue that none of the brutality on display is gratuitous. It’s thematically, narratively, and emotionally necessary. It’s also, thankfully, infrequent.
For my money, El laberinto del fauno is as near to perfection as any work of cinema made in the past quarter century. And while I can’t say the same for any of its home video releases, this new UHD/HDR release gets closer to the mark than past efforts. Quite frankly, that’s enough for me to recommend it as a worthy upgrade for those who are already under the film’s spell.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.