PAN Movie Review – The Boy Who Would Be …
Somewhere a cabal of studio executives in bespoke suits, three-hundred dollar haircuts, and mani-pedis the envy of Hollywood, decided that what moviegoers wanted (but didn’t know they wanted), what moviegoers craved (but didn’t know they craved), was yet another origin story, not for a B-, C-, or even D-list superhero from one of the Big Two (Marvel, DC) or their lesser competitors (Dark Horse, Image), but for a century old pop-culture creation, Peter Pan, most recently featured in a live-action musical adaptation for NBC. But in Hollywood — as true elsewhere — the name of the commercial game is IP (intellectual property), exploitable IP, preferably in the public domain (i.e., no rights holders to pay off). Studios have to put a new or novel spin, however, to make the IP their own, thus leaving us, wary and unwary moviegoers alike, with retellings and reimaginings, prequels and remakes (or premakes), and reboots and restarts. The cycle never ends and sometimes, often times, moviegoers are all the poorer for it, with Pan, Joe Wright’s (Hanna, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) big-budget Peter Pan prequel/origin story, as Exhibit No. 1.
The Peter (Levi Miller) we meet in the opening scenes bears little, if any resemblance to J.M. Barrie’s singular creation. For one, he doesn’t fly (not yet, anyway). He’s also stuck in a mid-World War II British orphanage, complete with a grotesque, greedy nun, Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), as his mortal enemy, and a best friend/sidekick, Nibs (Lewis MacDougall), Peter’s near equal in mischief-making and rule-breaking. The abrupt disappearance of several other orphans convinces Peter and Nibs to go into sleuth mode, Young Sherlock Holmes-style, but before they get too far, Peter finds himself a captive of Blackbeard’s (Hugh Jackman), kidnapped to Neverland. Wright and his screenwriter, Jason Fuchs, depict Neverland as a former paradise mined into almost ruined by Blackbeard’s avid, avaricious desire for pixum, otherwise known as pixie dust and key to Blackbeard’s youthful appearance (pale, unhealthy skin and bad teeth notwithstanding).
Relegated to mining duty, Peter doesn’t last long before he’s accused of theft and forced to walk the plank from Blackbeard’s floating, flying pirate ship. Peter doesn’t die, however (other plank walkers aren’t so lucky, but Wright relegates their deaths offscreen, presumably to preserve Pan’s family-friendly rating), but discovers his one and only superpower: He can fly. Alas, it’s not a superpower he can call up on demand, at least not until the third act when Blackbeard’s homicidal urges dictate Peter’s flying ability reemerges to (possibly) save the day. Along the way, Peter picks up two key allies, James Hook (Garrett Hedlund, inexplicably borrowing John Huston’s vocal inflections), a miner-slave like Peter, and Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), the princess of a tastefully multi-ethnic, multi-hued tribe (she’s still of the Caucasian, persuasion), while Hook’s sometime friend, occasional betrayer, and future second-in-command Sam Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar), joins the frenetic, frantic, ultimately cheerless non-fun in the second and third acts.
Narratively, Pan offers absolutely nothing (as in zero) new, relying heavily on the tired, tiresome “Hero’s Journey”/mono-myth (apologies to Joseph Campbell) moviegoers have experienced countless times since George Lucas lifted Campbell’s ideas wholesale for Star Wars: A New Hope almost forty years ago. Wright and Fuchs aren’t particularly subtle either, repeatedly signposting Peter’s destiny (including a prophecy because of course…) by calling him the One, the Chosen One, and even Neverland’s Messiah. Wright and Fuchs even call Peter’s long-lost mother, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Peter might as well don a leather trench coat, sunglasses, and practice a martial art or two (sadly he never learns Kung Fu, a decided missed opportunity). Hook awkwardly fits into the mentor role too, though Wright and Fuchs don’t so much foreshadow Peter and Hook’s enmity (they remain allies throughout), and signal Hook’s eventual fate via object placement (Hook uses a … hook to sharpen his knife) or an encounter with a crocodile that goes nowhere, thus serving no narrative purpose.
Pan optimistically saves the end of Peter and Hook’s friendship for the sequel (or the sequel after that), instead pushing Blackbeard into the foreground as Peter’s antagonist/enemy and the great despoiler of Neverland’s once verdant, natural beauty. In short, Blackbeard represents the worst in unregulated, exploitative, capitalistic excess, albeit wrapped in Jackman’s larger-than-cinematic-life portrayal of an aging, dictatorial megalomaniac and narcissist with a penchant for theatrical displays of power and tailor-made clothing (in black, again just because …). Just because Blackbeard fulfills the villain role in Pan doesn’t mean he can’t dress to impress and impress he does, thanks to costume designer Jacqueline Durran, here channeling her inner Eiko Ishioka (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Wright, a talented visually oriented filmmaker, doesn’t fare anywhere near as well working with a significant visual effects budget and a big-canvas fantasy setting, leading his actors into one unremarkable, unmemorable set piece after another (after another after …).