It is the height of arrogance to assume that the only films worth watching are those in English. To turn your nose up at a film because you have to read the subtitles to understand the plot is to close the door on an entire world of experiences, to say nothing of the fact that classic and modern cinema were shaped by the achievements of filmmakers across the world, from France to Japan and beyond. And you miss out on beauty and sorrow and terror all seen through a cultural filter that’s not your own.
I wonder how many kids were traumatised by Pan’s Labyrinth thanks to lazy parenting. ‘Oh, it must be a remake of the film with the puppets and the singing and David Bowie’s crazy hair, I’ll rent this for little Timmy, he’ll love it.’ Poor little Timmy.
Pan’s Labyrinth stars a child, but it’s not a children’s film. It features fairies but it’s no family-friendly fairy tale. Set during the Spanish Civil War, it’s alarmingly brutal at times – but then it’s also incredibly beautiful. The colour scheme is all autumnal browns and greens, and many of the shots are amazing. Guillermo Del Toro films tend to be beautiful, in a creepy way. Even Mimic, the giant cockroach movie.
Pan’s Labyrinth is about innocence, and escaping into a fantasy world to deal with the horrors of the real one. Or it’s about a re-incarnated princess given three magical tasks by a creepy faun so that she can return to her kingdom. Or t’s about a little girl who doesn’t like having to live with her violent fascist stepfather. You can choose how deeply you want to read into it.
Doug Jones plays the faun, and also a creepy monster with eyeballs in his hands. He’s one of the most accomplished physical actors, having played a silent floating Gentleman in the Buffy episode Hush and Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films. His dual role in this film is masterful, especially as he apparently couldn’t speak Spanish at all and had to learn his lines phonetically. The girl who plays Ofelia is also excellent, better than most British or American child actors.
In a lot of ways, though, the real star of the film is the special effects. The CGI of the fairies and the great old toad’s tongue still holds up well, and the practical effects are superb. It must have made for an excellent dry run for the Hellboy films. A couple of the more brutal moments will leave you squirming, though, so be warned.
Do yourself a favour – if you’ve never watched a film that’s not in English, give this one a chance. It’s worth the reading.