Plot: What’s it about?
Whenever Criterion decides to release a box set of films it is worth looking into. In the past they have released beautiful box sets of Jacques Tati, two box sets of Krzysztof Kieslowski, and most recently a trilogy of films by Guillermo Del Toro. I am a big fan of Guillermo Del Toro, but I personally find his films pretty hit or miss. Like I said, I’m a big fan and when he hits he hits hard. This release includes my two personal favorites of his oeuvre, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, both of which are destined for classic status. I will summarize the films on each disk and give my opinion of them in the next few paragraphs and my final opinion of the box set in the closing notes.
Cronos (Disc 1)
Cronos was the first feature length film by Del Toro. The story begins with an alchemist working on a unique device shaped like an amulet that he hopes will give him eternal life. Four hundred years later, he is found dying in a bombed out building from the world war, wood piercing through his chest. In his home, they find a horror show of dead bodies drained of blood. Inside of an archangel statue his amulet lays dormant, until Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi) discovers the amulet on accident in his antique store after accidentally shaking it loose from the statue. Upon inspection of the device, it latches onto his hand and pierces into him. From this moment forward, he has unquenchable thirst and begins to seemingly age in reverse. Meanwhile, an aging tycoon has been searching for this archangel because of an ancient manuscript he found from the alchemist. He sends his American nephew (Ron Perlman) to retrieve the archangel, but upon realizing it is missing the device, he has his nephew confront Jesus. The plot thickens from there, but I have already probably given away too much of the plot.
Out of the three films, Cronos is the weakest. It is inventive and shows signs of the greatness to come, but is ultimately a minor effort. I had seen the film a couple years ago and had been unimpressed, but on second viewing I enjoyed the film much more. I can’t tell if this is simply because I had much lower expectations or if the film had grown on me. Regardless, I am glad the film is included in the box set, but I would not recommend running out to purchase this as a stand alone.
I can’t quite put my finger on what keeps the film from greatness, but I can tell you that the music is absolutely irritating. The performances also don’t quite gel together, even though I really enjoyed Ron Perlman’s performance in the film. It is like a collection of interesting ideas without the experience needed to pull them off perfectly. Guillermo had really matured by the time he filmed the next film in the collection.
The Devil’s Backbone (Disc 2)
After making a film for the major studios (Mimic), Del Toro took some time to craft an absolutely astounding film, The Devil’s Backbone. The movie takes place during the Spanish Civil War. The opening shot of the film shows a bomb being dropped from a plane. This opening shot comes in to focus later and its significance is explained much later in the film, but the bomb is next seen lodged in the ground in the courtyard of an orphanage. Carlos, a twelve year old boy, has been brought to the orphanage as his freedom fighter father dies. He is left to his own devices in a hostile environment of bullying boys and rough caretakers. On top of that, he is haunted by a spirit of a boy named Santi. As the plot unfolds, it will become necessary to find out how Santi perished and why. People will reveal themselves to be heroes and villains along the way and the orphanage will be directly impacted by the war around the,.
It is hard to say which film I prefer, Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone. They are both so strikingly original and fantastic, that I could argue the merits of each. Del Toro simultaneously delivers a history lesson on how people struggled during the Spanish Civil War while delivering an extremely well crafted ghost story. The conclusion of the film wraps up all the loose ends tidily.
There are many reasons to watch the film. The first is the striking originality on display. The beautiful creature design for the ghost of Santi is beautiful and strange. The acting from all involved is good to great with the children actors carrying a heavy load and delivering solid performances. The cinematography is beautiful by his collaborator Guillermo Navarro. This film is my personal favorite out of the three films with Pan’s Labyrinth a very close second. I love a good ghost story, and this must be one of the best ghost stories put to celluloid. Pan’s Labyrinth in many ways is a superior effort as far as creativity and consistency of performance goes, but I find myself revisiting this film more often, partially because Pan’s Labyrinth is so rough. I think this could be a point of contention amongst fans, but nobody that I have met has disliked either film.
Pan’s Labyrinth (Disc 3)
Pan’s Labyrinth came out in my sophomore year of college and was a surprise sleeper hit, even making its way to the Academy Awards with numerous nominations including Best Picture. The film still holds a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, so it is pretty obvious that the critical reception was great for the film. It is pretty incredible that a violent Spanish-speaking period piece about the Spanish Civil War with fantasy elements mixed in was so overwhelmingly loved and embraced. I remember that when I first saw it I was absolutely floored. The theatre I was in felt the exact same way. I remember that nobody dared to say a thing until they made their way to the outside of the theatre, because the movie had hit all of them in different ways.
Pan’s Labyrinth begins with Ofelia, a precocious twelve year old girl, riding with her mother in a protected caravan through war struck Spain. Ofelia’s mother is sick due to her pregnancy and the trip has put her in danger. The caravan is bringing them to Captain Vidal so that his child can be born in his presence. Vidal impregnated her after her tailor husband died in the war. Vidal oversees a military installation that is fighting guerillas that live in the forests outside the camp. Vidal and Ofelia immediately come to bad terms, and it soon becomes quite clear that he cares most about his own legacy and little about the mother’s health or Ofelia. Meanwhile, Ofelia meets a walking stick that becomes a fairy and leads her to a Fauna in the Labyrinth outside the base camp. As Ofelia befriends Mercedes, a housekeeper for Vidal, she begins to see the true nature of the war around her and becomes deeply enveloped in fantasy. Vidal is sadistic in his attempts to kill the guerillas, and is also sadistic in how he treats all those around him. As the rebels begin to close in on the base, all of these interposed parts collide together. Fantasy will affect reality and vice versa in irreversible ways.
The film is, in my opinion, essentially a masterpiece. The acting is top notch. Child actress Ivana Baquero’s performance is extremely convincing as Ofelia. Sergi Lopez is absolutely incredible as Captain Vidal, oozing menace like almost no other villain onscreen. The supporting turns by Maribel Verdu (of Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) and Alex Angulo are both great. The cinematography by Guillermo Navarro is great and bears the same yellow and blue look and feel as the beautiful The Devil’s Backbone. The score by Javier Navarrete fits the film like a glove and helps to emphasize the fantastic elements.
At the end of the day, this is Guillermo Del Toro’s show. As writer, director, and producer it is his vision that we see on screen without compromise. Credit needs to be given where it is due, and this film was obviously a project he cared deeply about. As a viewer, I believe you will feel exactly what he wanted you to feel…. astonished.
(Note: this film has some violent content that borders on some of the most extreme that I have seen. To me, it makes perfect sense and is in no way gratuitous , but I would not want it to completely blindside you.)
Video: How’s it look?
I do not want to go too overboard the specifics of each release as there is so much to discuss. Instead I will give the bullet points:
Cronos – 8/10- this film looks pretty good overall but does not have the great look of the other releases. Guillermo was just beginning to understand his craft and did not have the financial backing that would have allowed for the beauty of the later films. It does not look bad, but the film is not particularly visually appealing.
The Devil’s Backbone – 10/10- Criterion gives an amazingly beautiful transfer here. Honest to God, I can not think of anything disparaging to say about the work that Criterion put into getting this right. Reds, yellows, and blues are all used strikingly as with other Del Toro films. My personal favorite shot is the viewpoint of the bomb from the beginning. So cool looking.
Pan’s Labyrinth – 10/10- Criterion have taken what was already a good looking transfer and have made it absolutely perfect. The video quality is stunning, with great color and depth of field. Criterion teamed up with Guillermo Del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro to make sure that the picture quality was perfect and the results are nothing short of breathtaking. The previous transfer was good as released by New Line, but this one is even better, featuring a more robust depth of field and less macroblocking. Fans will be pleased.
Audio: How’s it sound?
I do not want to go too overboard the specifics of each release as there is so much to discuss. Instead I will give the bullet points:
Cronos – 8/10 – the track itself sounds fine. There are no real issues with the fidelity to the source material. That said, I was not a fan of the goofy music that seemed to detract from the film. Therefore I took a couple points away.
The Devil’s Backbone- 10/10 – by the time Del Toro made this film, he knew exactly what he was doing. The surrounds are used to great effect at amplifying the ghostly sounds in the field. Everything about this track sounds crisp and correct with no audible hiss. Good stuff.
Pan’s Labyrinth– this is the standout track. Similar to the video, this DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track is very high quality. Surrounds are incredibly active throughout the entire film with a very immersive feel to the entire film. Like previous Del Toro films, sound is not an afterthought, but something very well thought out and orchestrated. The score by Javier Navarrete expertly meshes with the film’s mixture of fantasy and reality. Another great transfer by Criterion.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Audio Commentaries – Two Commentaries are included. One by Guillermo Del Toro and another by producers Arthur H. Gorson and Bertha Navarro with coproduction Alejandro Springall. I am always happy when more than one commentary is included on any given film, but obviously my attention drifts more towards the Del Toro commentary.
- Geometria (HD, 6:27) and an accompanying interview (HD, 6:53) – an enjoyable short film from 1987 that has been reedited to turn out the way it was originally intended. Pretty solid. Accompanied by an interview that was great also. Great features.
- Welcome to Bleak House (HD, 10:14) -a curated tour through Guillermo’s house for his curiosities, dubbed Bleak House, which shows the objects that inspire his creativity. As a bit of a hoarder, I was entirely impressed by his collections. I mean, he has models from Harryhausen! How cool is that! Really fun and interesting.
- Guillermo Del Toro (HD, 17:36) – this interview goes a long way to explaining his thoughts on the film and what he wanted to accomplish with it and what he still enjoys about a film that has acknowledged shortcomings. I love hearing Guillermo’s thoughts, and this interview is pretty thoughtful and enjoyable. I really enjoyed his explanation of the religious themes in the film. It was meant to be his lapsed Catholic film. He also explains how this film created the group that would make the core crew for the rest of his films.
- Guillermo Navarro (HD, 12:36) – an excellent interview that sheds light on how their friendship and relationship began while Guillermo was a make-up artist. His career has been varied and he explains the shots that he preferred the most from the film. He won an Academy Award for his work on Pan’s Labyrinth.
- Ron Perlman (HD, 7:25) – a short but enjoyable interview with Perlman who tells how they became friends and developed their long-running working relationship. Even though the interview is short, his statements are really profound on his takeaways from his time with Del Toro.
- Federico Luppi (SD/HD, 5:25)- an archival interview with Jesus Gris himself. He went through a lot to make the film, but seemed pleased with the results.
- Trailer – (HD, 1:29)
- Stills Gallery – (HD, 2:12)
The Devil’s Backbone
- Introduction – director Guillermo del Toro introduces The Devil’s Backbone. From 2010.(HD, 1 min).
- Summoning Spirits – this was my favorite interview on the disk. Del Toro explains the thoughts between Santi and how the character’s design evolved. The interview was conducted exclusively for Criterion in 2013. In English, not subtitled. (14 min, 1080p).
- Que es un fantasma? – a really in depth documentary on the production of the film from 2004. Lots of good interviews with those involved. In Spanish, with optional English subtitles. (28 min, 1080i).
- Spanish Gothic – Del Toro discusses how Gothic ideas and Spain itself impacted the writing of the film. The interview was conducted by Javier Soto in 2010. In English, not subtitled. (18 min, 1080i).
- Director’s Notebook – produced by Javier Soto in 2010, this interactive gallery presents pages from director Guillermo del Toro’s notebook of preparatory drawings and concepts for The Devil’s Backbone. When highlighted (look for the red key on each page), selected entries lead to on-camera comments by the Mexican director. This feature is similar to the one on the Pan’s Labyrinth disk. (1080i).
- Designing The Devil’s Backbone – another good interview with Del Toro highlighting how the production designs came about for the film. The interview was conducted exclusively for Criterion in 2013. (12 min, 1080p).
- Del Toro’s Thumbnails – this feature allows one to see the various miniature sketches the Mexican director created for specific sequences in The Devil’s Backbone. When the feature is selected, the sketches will appears in conjunction with their corresponding sequences as the film plays.
- Deleted Scenes – four deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Guillermo del Toro. In Spanish, with optional English subtitles. The commentaries are in English. (4 min, 1080i).
- Sketch, Storyboard, Screen – a collection of video pieces offering side-by-side comparisons of director Guillermo del Toro’s initial thumbnail sketches, Carlos Gimenez’s production storyboards, and the corresponding scenes from the final cut of the film. From the release in 2004. Even though this was not new, these six features are really interesting. In Spanish, with optional English subtitles. (12 min, 1080i).
- A War of Values – Spanish Civil War scholar Sebastian Faber, author of Exile and Cultural Hegemony discusses the political background of The Devil’s Backbone exclusively for Criterion in 2013. I enjoyed this interview. (15 min, 1080p).
- Trailer – (3 min, 1080p).
- Commentary – another solid audio commentary with director Guillermo del Toro. This is the same audio commentary that appeared on the R1 DVD release of The Devil’s Backbone from 2004.
- Director’s Introduction – this archival video introduction by director-writer-producer Guillermo del Toro was included on the 2007 release. In English, not subtitled. (1 min, 1080i).
- Del Toro and Funke – Novelist Cornelia Funke (Inkheart) sits down to discuss the role of fairy tales in Guillermo del Toro’s work with the director. This is an enjoyable piece and goes a long way to figuring out his influences. This interview was conducted exclusively for Criterion in 2016. In English, not subtitled. (40 min, 1080p).
- Director’s Notebook – presented here is an interactive gallery with Guillermo del Toro’s notebook of drawings and sketches for Pan’s Labyrinth, with short videos featuring comments from the director. The notebook was produced by Javier Soto and included on the 2007 release. The videos come to just over fifteen minutes worth of material and are pretty interesting. In English, not subtitled. (1080i).
- Doug Jones – The famous character actor discusses working with Guillermo on several projects. I enjoyed this interview. Unfortunately this interview was the only other interview conducted exclusively for Criterion in 2016. In English, not subtitled. (26 min, 1080p).
- Ivana Baquero Audition – archival footage from actress Ivana Baquero’s audition for the role of Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth which was shot on April 10, 2005. In Spanish, with optional English subtitles. (3 min, 1080i).
- Prequel Comics – four animated comic-books with prequel stories for creatures from the movie, which were included on the 2007 release. Once again, neat – but from the last release.
- The Giant Toad. (1 min, 1080i).
- The Fairies. ( 1 min, 1080i).
- The Faun. (1 min, 1080i).
- The Pale Man (2 min, 1080i).
- Video Comparisons – three video comparisons to see how everything came together. Once again, from the 2007 release.
- Lullaby. (3 min, 1080i).
- The Green Fairy. (2 min, 1080i).
- Thumbnails/Storyboards. (1080i).
- Del Toro Intro
- Ofelia Enters the Labyrinth
- Ofelia and the Giant Toad
- Death of the Doctor
- Ofelia’s Death
- Trailers and TV Spots – seven TV spots, a teaser, and a trailer.
- Audio Commentary – this audio commentary by Guillermo del Toro was recorded in 2007 and initially appeared on New Line Cinema’s release of Pan’s Labyrinth. This is a great commentary track that is very detailed about the film’s conception to completion.
The Bottom Line
This box set of Guillermo Del Toro’s work includes two fantastic films and one that is only decent. The supplemental materials are very good, even though some of the special features rely heavily on previous releases. If you plan on owning these three films, this box set is a no-brainer. If you are on the fence as to whether you need all three films, all three films are available separately. The box set features a really unique box design and an exclusive 100 page booklet that is really neat. At the end of the day, if you already own two of the films, I would not trade them in to buy the box set, but if you only own one of the films it may be worth selling it on eBay and purchasing the full set. Technical merits of the disks are overall fantastic, with Pan’s Labyrinth’s presentation in particular looking and sounding perfect. This box set comes highly recommended overall.