Movie Review: Pan
Director Joe Wright, mostly known for his stately period pieces such as Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice, manages to provide awe, but precious little wonder in his big budget origin story for Peter Pan. If you’ve perused the Wrap Up, you already know that the film had an atrocious debut weekend, and is being savaged with great glee by punsters and critics alike. Is it that bad? I’ve been known to defend critically maligned movies in the past (this year’s Fantastic Four, anyone?) and I’m always willing to watch a truly bad film, just for the righteous anger fuel it provides. My impression of Pan is that it was visually brilliant and full of action, but contained some really bizarre elements that destroyed my immersion in Wright’s beautiful fantasy land, and ultimately it didn’t bring anything new to the time-worn story of Peter Pan…at least nothing interesting.
Peter is a young orphan, abandoned as an infant to the ludicrously cruel Sisters of Perpetual Prudence. Always a precocious lad, Peter and his friend Nibs decide to break into the head nun’s office, where it is rumored she has stored secret hordes of food and goodies. In the office’s treasure room, Peter discovers his file, containing a note from his mother which promises they shall meet again, and hints that he has a grand destiny ahead of him. This is shortly confirmed when pirates raid the orphanage (at the behest of the evil head nun) and take Peter and most of the the other boys aboard their flying pirate ship, bound for Neverland.
In Neverland, the boys are put to work as slaves in Blackbeard’s mine, where they seek a rare macguffin called Pixum, a fairy dust residue that keeps one perpetually young (though doesn’t explicitly grant one the ability to fly…) Peter meets a young man named James Hook, and the two enlist the help of a bumbling task-master named Smee to smuggle them aboard one of the air-ships so as to escape Neverland. They don’t make it very far, and instead stumble upon Tiger Lilly’s native camp, and learn about the war between pirates and fairies that will decide the fate of Neverland.
The greatest strength of Pan is in its visuals. The movie looks great, from the first amazing trip aboard a flying pirate ship through the cosmos, to the lush forests of Neverland, and right up through the crystalline kingdom of the fairies. Joe Wright’s Neverland is a fantastic world, and each setting is unique and memorable. What is made of these locales is less wondrous, but they are sure pretty.
I caught the film in 3D, and I have to say it helped the film enormously. There is always something breathtaking coming at you, almost gratuitously so. Cannon balls whiz by your eyes, never-birds come crashing out of the background, and giant crocodiles soar majestically overhead. The flying ships are easily the slickest part of this experience, and they really come to life in 3D.
Having created such a potent landscape, the film then makes several unforced errors that yank you out of the experience. Our first taste of Blackbeard is set to the raucous sounds of his pirate army singing…Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. What the holy hell? Nowhere is it explained how this surly lot have access to future tunes, especially since Peter is from 1940’s London and none of the captives looks to be from any other time period. Its not the only song from the future, as the pirates also seem to appreciate Punk Rock anthems. It makes absolutely no sense and accomplishes nothing story wise. I guess Wright just really wanted to show us how well Hugh Jackman can lip sync Kurt Cobain.
Another big problem is casting. Hugh Jackman is a fine and devious Blackbeard, but we don’t get nearly enough of him. Once Peter is in Neverland, we pretty much know how his story is going to go, so focus on the villain! Fans of the original know that it’s the pirates that are the fun part. We get a weak scene of Blackbeard using Pixum to remain young, and are left to infer that obtaining it is all that motivates him. How did he get to Neverland, how did he get flying ships, and how did he work out a human slavery contract with an order of nasty nuns? Those would have been more interesting than 2 hours of waiting to see if Peter can fly (hint, we damn well know he can, he’s Peter flocking flying Pan!)
Many have knocked Levi Miller as Peter, but I found his performance to be decent. He has some really awful dialogue, but he’s not at fault for a clunky script. The real sore spot for me was Garrett Hedlund as Hook, who was neither interesting nor necessary. Having Hook and Peter as friends is fine, but it never sheds any light on how they became mortal enemies. There’s very little that is Pannish about Peter, and absolutely nothing rogue-ish about Hook, so I guess we just take it as faith that between this movie and whatever comes next, they completely change their personalities so as to resemble the original story. And Hedlund’s delivery makes me want to eat glass. I hope his mannerisms were affected, because it was awful.
The worst knock to the fantasy of the film was the natives. Rooney Mara is definitely white. She is a fine actress and pulls off the physicality of her role wonderfully…but she’s white. OK, so we just establish that the natives are like the pirates, a motley assortment bound more by ideology than race, right? Nope, because everyone else in the native camp is decidedly not white, though the casting agent seemed to assume that Asian and Indian were basically the same thing. Hey, as long as they’re not white, they’re pretty much natives, am I right? Anyone? It’s a racist and insulting gaffe, since literally one other white person and a throw-away line about how the natives recruit anyone who hates pirates into the tribe would have quieted concerns (or, hell, maybe consider casting actual indigenous peoples for roles that call for indigenous people. Shocking!) Either way, it’s boneheaded and indicative of how botched the casting in this film was.
I didn’t find Pan to be a terrible movie. The cinematography and constant action were completely sufficient to keep my butt in the seat for the duration of the film. To damn with film with faint praise, it was a not unpleasant way to spend two hours. It just never was any more than that. The story fails to live up to the wondrous world it creates, and it squanders its best aspects, by either neglecting to develop Blackbeard, or by making terrible casting decisions. Finally, the film just has no ambition. It doesn’t add a single thing to the Peter Pan mythos. Pan goes to Neverland, finds pirates and then fights pirates. I’m pretty sure we could have cribbed together that origin story without the help of this movie. It throws tons of winks and nods to the original and to Hook, an immensely better spin off about Peter Pan, but never adds its own iconic moments to the series. It just paddles around, checking off boxes next to familiar elements and then hopes you are so anxious to know how Hook and Pan completely change from best pals to bitter foes that you’re willing to pony up for a sequel. Fat chance of that, Mr. Wright.