Grade: A-
Entire family: No (16 and older)
2006, 119 min., Color
Rated R for graphic violence and some language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Spanish DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital Code
Amazon link

Strange. Dark. Sad. Beautiful. Haunting. Powerful.

That describes Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning Best Picture The Shape of Water (2017), and it also aptly describes the Mexican director’s earlier wartime fantasy-drama, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Del Toro introduces the new 4K HD release (in Spanish, with English subtitles) by saying simply, “This movie almost killed me.” That’s easy to believe, because Pan’s Labyrinth takes a lot out of audiences too. With del Toro’s fairy tales for adults, you know you’re going to find the film visually stunning, narratively compelling, and, ultimately, deeply moving.

The action takes during place during WWII (1944) in Franco’s fascist Spain. Ofelia (played confidently and sympathetically by Ivana Baquero) is riding in a military car with her pregnant mother to a country outpost run by the ruthless and sadistic Captain Vidal—who married the mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), after her husband died in the war. He had sent for them because he wanted his baby to be born near him. In the car, Ofelia reads a fairytale about a princess who fled her father’s underground kingdom to live in the world above, where she was subject to that world’s illnesses and death. But her father knew that one day her spirit would return to him in the form of another. 

That fairytale plot is interwoven with a story of the Spanish resistance fighters who hide in the nearby hills and strike without warning, so that these “fairytale” woods become dark, foreboding, and dangerous on two different levels. We’re not long into the film before Ofelia wanders off and finds a stone with markings on it, then restores it to the eye socket on a monolith. Moments later a large mantis-type insect emerges from the stone mouth and she immediately thinks it’s a fairy. Later, she follows that fairy down a spiral staircase in what looks, on the surface, like an old abandoned well. There she meets an old faun (Doug Jones) who tells her that they’ve been waiting for her. But she has to prove she’s the real princess returned by completing mythic tasks—all this, while war is going on.

War is brutal, and del Toro doesn’t shy away from showing the cruel disregard for life that the Falangists in power have, or the equally graphic violence that some of the officers receive at the hands of resistance fighters. There’s torture and there are firefights of some magnitude, all within a hair’s breath of fairytale themes that play out in this strikingly original film. There are heroes, too, as we see resistance sympathizers like Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and Dr. Ferreiro (Alex Angulo) working among the Falangists and biding their time.

Pan’s Labyrinth won Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction, and Makeup, and what was visually stunning in HD is even more spectacular in UltraHD. There’s more detail to be seen in shadows and dark scenes, and no dynamic noise reduction residuals to mar the picture of this new 4K release—though the accompanying Blu-ray seems to be the same one that was originally released.

Disturbing? Uplifting? Or both?

Viewers will have their own way of responding to this outstanding film, but make no mistake about it: you will have an emotional response that will then get you thinking about war, and fairytales, and the afterlife, and mythology, and Shakespeare’s Ophelia in Hamlet, and the things people do to survive . . . or fight back.

Language: Four f-bombs that may seem more striking because you’re seeing them in subtitles, plus a handful of lesser swearwords

Sex: Nothing at all

Violence: Graphic violence, bloody violence, fantasy creature heads bitten off, an implied amputation, a sliced mouth, stabs, faces beaten to a pulp, and possibly the most cringe-worthy: a man sewing his own mouth back together

Adult situations: A birth is partially shown, and there’s a monster that is shown in illustrations to eat children and then that monster comes to life, and there’s smoking and drinking to the point of inebriation 

Takeaway: Guillermo del Toro has a vividly weird imagination, and he works on bringing every ounce of it to life in his films