Directed by Joe Wright.
Starring Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara.
There is one thing I find incredible about Pan. During all the many focus groups and round table discussions, did nobody consider it ill advised to call a terrible movie ‘Pan’? Ok, they didn’t know it would be terrible. But still – did not one of those Warner brothers executives stop as he watched a powerpoint presentation on franchise possibilities for Neverland, and think, “Huh, wait, if it’s bad? News reports might read ‘Pan panned by critics’, or maybe even just ‘Panned’. We’re really setting ourselves up for a pun based headline here”. Maybe one guy did, raising his hand meekly at the back of the room, and he was met with shaking heads, scornful eyes and wave after wave of laughter – “But it can’t fail” they’d tell him “We dropped Peter Pan into the origin-story-engine that we keep out the back, the one Chris Nolan built for us all those years back. It never fails”.
But fail it has, and I have to say there’s something really intriguing about its failure. When a film works it’s like a good magic trick, you get so immersed in it that you can’t see how it’s done and don’t notice the work that’s gone into the effect. When it doesn’t work – when the lady in the box screams in panic as the saw cuts into her body – you suddenly see the trick laid bare in all its components. How Pan fails to transform Peter Pan into a modern, marketable series reveals Hollywood’s obvious and most cynical tricks to generate a franchise.
Like all these prequels, Pan claims to be telling you the real story behind the legend (and the way you know it’s real is that it’s really dark and violent). Peter is an oppressed orphan living in a Dickensian orphanage during World War 2. He pines for his mother while being harassed by a monstrously evil Irish nun. One night he and a number of boys are kidnapped by a band of flying pirates, and taken to Neverland to work as slaves where they mine fairy dust for the dastardly Captain Blackbeard. If child kidnapping and fairy dust mining wasn’t bad enough, Captain Blackbeard’s despotism extends to forcing every child to sing Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to him whenever he appears in the films most baffling attempt to be post modern. In the mines, Peter befriends a cocky loner cowboy by the name of James Hook (dun dun duhhhhh), and discovers a prophecy that he may be the one – the boy who can fly, and who can save Neverland from being drained of all magic by Blackbeard. Along with his new friend Hook, he sets out on an adventure across Neverland to escape Blackbeard and discover his destiny.
I’m not precious about adaptations. You can take the plot of The Godfather and turn it into an all-female musical space opera for all I care. Once the resulting film actually tries something interesting. Pan uses J.M. Barrie’s original character names and world but drains all the energy, depth and wonder from the story, replacing it instead with a bland and derivative ‘hero’s journey’. J.M. Barrie’s Peter is a boy who never grows up – he hates parents, loves himself, gives in to every impulse, and pursues every adventure. He’s a heightened version of childhood in all its glory and failings. Joe Wright’s Peter is just a boy with a good heart who longs for a parent, doubts himself, and must shoulder the weight of responsibility that a prophecy places on him. He’s Harry Potter. He also can’t move without being lectured in hero-waffle – ‘find your destiny’, ‘overcome your doubts’, ‘discover the extraordinary within you’. Everyone in the film has a life lesson they were keeping bottled up, just waiting for the right boy to come along and hear it.
Pan’s big ‘hook’ is Hook (sorry, I had to do that). There’s enormous potential for great drama in showing Hook and Peter as friends. It’s often hinted in the original that Hook is Peter if he ever did grow up – selfishness and impulsiveness combined with violent authority. Indeed the last time we see Peter Pan in Neverland, Peter is dressed in Hooks clothes and is sitting alone, curling his hand like a hook. With Pan’s Hook, instead of showing a shadow of the hero with similar flaws, we just get a poor man’s Han Solo, a wisecracking cowboy that we’re supposed to find charismatic. James Hook is like a pull string toy that grumbles action clichés – ‘Course I know how to drive this thing…woooooh’, ‘I look out for myself kid’, ‘There’s a snake in my boots!’ (okay the last one didn’t happen but it wouldn’t have been out of place).
For the most part, the film is a collection of loud CGI spectacles which Peter and Hook run through as Blackbeard pursues them. Amid the frantic noise, though, there’s moments where the film calms down and achieves a genuine sense of wonder. As the Jolly Roger drifts through space, Peter is propelled into the atmosphere and floats among the stars in a long take that genuinely uses 3D well. In the standout action scene of the film, pirates battle the native tribe who explode into bright clouds of coloured dust when shot, creating some startling visual moments. The film does a very good job of updating this Picaninny tribe and removing the many racist overtones of the original story. Instead of the scalp-hunting, cannibalistic ‘redskins’, Wright turns the Picaninny’s into a colourful and noble tribe which encompasses a wide variety of different races. Their princess, Tiger Lilly, might be the usual Hollywood ‘girl who kicks ass in her introduction and then needs to be saved repeatedly’, but Rooney Mara does a great job of injecting a sense of charm and mischief beneath the stoic toughness of her character. While on the subject of performance – Blackbeard is a confusing and dull villain with an unclear backstory, but wow, Hugh Jackman has an awful lot of fun playing him. When the film’s credits finally rolled after the promise of many sequels, I was reassured by the thought “well at least Hugh Jackman enjoyed himself. He seems like a nice man generally. I bet every night he had trouble getting to sleep after all the fun he had on set”. So, while I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone, if you happen to really enjoy seeing Hugh having a nice time, as he gets to act all evil, then – and only in that specific scenario – you should watch this film.
Pan is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.
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