Film Review: ‘Pan’

Pan Hugh Jackman costumes
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Stripping all whimsy and wonder from the Peter Pan story, Joe Wright's prequel is a busy, bungled bust.

Of all the recent big-budget studio films to re-imagine beloved children’s tales as garish, CGI-choked sensory overloads stripped of all whimsy or childlike wonder, Joe Wright’s “Pan” is certainly the most technically sophisticated. The director displays his typical formal virtuosity and keen eye for young talent here (Aussie newcomer Levi Miller is assured in the title role), but it’s not enough to enliven the depressing dourness of the film’s worldview. Positioned as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan stories, “Pan” swaps puckish mischief and innocence for doses of Steampunk design, anachronistic music, a stock “chosen one” narrative and themes of child labor, warfare and unsustainable mineral mining. Worldwide box office will likely be strong, especially overseas, but the bubble for these joyless fairy-tale revisions cannot pop quickly enough.

There is perhaps no clearer illustration of “Pan’s” guiding principles than its treatment of pixie dust. In Walt Disney’s 1953 “Peter Pan,” the story’s best-known incarnation, pixie dust is a glowing substance that allows lucky children to fly high above the clouds. In “Pan,” pixie dust is the street name for Pixum, a rare, crystalline substance mined by slave labor from deep in the earth that, when smoked on an elaborate opium den-style apparatus, restores youthfulness to the user. (The film neglects to tell us its radioactive half-life or the side effects of recreational use, but perhaps those scenes are being saved for the director’s cut.)

Before we even get to the aforementioned scenes of enforced manual labor in Neverland, however, we have a cheerful prologue set in a Dickensian London orphanage during the worst of the Nazi bombing raids. Twelve-year-old Peter (Miller, perhaps Wright’s best child-actor discovery since Saoirse Ronan) has been here since infancy, when he was left by his apparently parkour-trained mother (Amanda Seyfried) along with a letter and a pan-pipes medallion. Noticing strange disappearances around the orphanage, Peter and buddy Nibs (Lewis MacDougal) break into the office of the gruesome head nun (Kathy Burke), discovering a cache of silver coins and hoarded rations. That night, she raises a black flag above the facility, and bungee-jumping pirates abscond with a host of children, Peter included.

Greeted by a pirate chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (they also sing the Ramones’ “Blitzkreig Bop,” and neither song makes any kind of sense in the film’s universe) the orphans are transported into Neverland. Whereas Barrie’s creation was a sometimes dangerous yet fanciful world that melded all of the most universal boyhood daydreams into single setting, Wright’s is a dimly lit purgatory, where kidnapped orphans toil in the Pixum mines of diva-esque pirate leader Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who supervises from his floating airship. To maintain order, Blackbeard routinely makes troublemakers walk the plank into a bed of rocks.

This fate befalls Peter on his first day, yet he shocks the onlookers by taking flight just as he’s about to go splat. Recaptured, he soon finds himself in Blackbeard’s captain’s quarters, where he explains to Peter that an ancient prophecy foretold a chosen one with the ability to fly, the child of a fairy prince and human mother who would someday come to defeat him. Sent to prison, Peter is soon joined by a swashbuckling cowboy named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund, playing the role as an Indiana Jones type with eternally gritted teeth), who sees Peter and his flying abilities as his ticket back to the real world. Abetted by Hook’s middling middle-manager buddy, Sam “Smee” Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar), Peter and Hook hijack a pirate ship and escape into the woods.

After a fashion, they wind up captured by the Neverland natives, a band of guerrilla insurrectionists who have been sabotaging Blackbeard’s mining expeditions. Though this tribe is an ethnically diverse crew, the only member with much significant screentime is also the only Caucasian, Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). Initially distrustful, Tiger Lily reveals more about Peter’s mythical parentage, engages in some go-nowhere flirtation with Hook, and tries to ferry them away to a mystical fairy archive of some sort. Blackbeard is of course in hot pursuit, desperate to procure more of his organic anti-wrinkle treatment.

Wright offers a number of solid action sequences along the way — one an airborne martial-arts routine on trampolines, another blatantly lifted from “Avatar” — and makes sure the narrative can accommodate cameos from some of Barrie’s greatest hits, including a humpback-sized crocodile and a school of mermaids (all played by Cara Delevingne with slightly different makeup). But at no point in the entire film is any character allowed to have any fun at all, which is a rather devastating flaw for a movie that’s supposed to be set in an eternal wonderland of play and arrested childhood innocence. (Though it tends to be remembered more fondly than it deserves, Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” at least understood the core appeal of the Peter Pan story.)

Ironically, Wright had previously proven intuitively capable of tackling a fractured fairy tale: In 2011’s “Hanna,” the director took a violent, adult-themed action film and cleverly invested it with enough Brothers Grimm elements to make an intoxicatingly strange brew. Here he takes an actual magical children’s tale and imbues it with the most hackneyed of contemporary fantasy-action tropes, and the inverse combination does not possess nearly the same thrill. It’s also odd how little fun screenwriter Jason Fuchs has reimagining this universe; even the pairing of future adversaries Hook and Peter fails to pan out in any memorable ways.

With a camera that is constantly, purposefully on the move, Wright’s gift for showily ostentatious filmmaking is as pronounced as ever, though the sheer unreality of so much of this lavishly designed, massively computer-enhanced world means that it’s harder to be impressed at the physicality of his choreography. (The screening attended was in 3D, which actually diminishes a number of Wright’s compositions; scenes of flying especially feel strangely non-transporting, with tiny stereoscopic figures hovering above flat, undifferentiated backgrounds.) Despite the film’s overall dimness, cinematographers Seamus McGarvey and John Mathieson offer a number of striking, oil-painterly canvasses, and Jacqueline Durran’s wild costumes are all flamboyantly eye-catching, even if Tiger Lily’s getup looks a bit like an explosion at the Etsy distribution center.

Film Review: 'Pan'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Sept. 17, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release and presentation in association with RatPac-Dune Entertainment. Produced by Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Paul Webster. Executive producers, Tim Lewis, Steven Mnuchin.

Crew

Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay, Jason Fuchs, based on characters introduced by J.M. Barrie. Camera (color, 3D), Seamus McGarvey, John Mathieson; editors, Paul Tothill, William Hoy; music, John Powell; production designer, Aline Bonetto; supervising art director, Peter Russell; costume designer, Jacqueline Durran; sound, John Casali Amps; supervising sound editors, Craig Berkey, Becki Ponting; re-recording mixers, Berkey, Chris Burdon; visual effects supervisor, Chas Jarrett; visual effects, Scanline, Framestore, MPC, Rising Sun Pictures, Wolf & Crew, Magic Camera Company, Filament; special effects supervisor, Mark Holt; stereoscopic supervisor, Chris Parks; assistant director, Will Dodds; casting, Jina Jay, Dixie Chassay.

With

Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Adeel Akhtar, Nonso Anozie, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke, Lewis MacDougal, Cara Delevingne, Taejoo Naa, Jack Charles.

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  1. Sammy says:

    My son loved it. I think it was good.

  2. “Though it tends to be remembered more fondly than it deserves, Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” at least understood the core appeal of the Peter Pan story.”

    I strongly disagree with the first part of that. This movie is not merely remembered fondly (many young adults have seen it at least once since it’s been on Netflix rather that just remembering it from a viewing decades ago), it is actively loved, and no, not “more fondly than it deserves.” It is loved every bit as much as it deserves, and the reason for that is exactly what you said in the second part. Spielberg understood what it was about Peter Pan that endeared the story to so many of us, and wove those elements into the movie. Rather than ignoring a known origin story in favor of his own version, he went the often-ignored direction by moving the story years into the future.

    He then added some emotional punch that many people could identify with. If you couldn’t understand his son’s anger over feeling ignored by a parent, surely you could understand the fear of the children over being abducted. Almost everyone can understand the frustration over trying to balance the adult world with family, and feeling the need to put work, your ability to support your family, first. For many of us, the desire to reclaim some of the childish wonder at the world is strong, and so we were elated for Peter when he finally did what so many of us only dream of doing in our real lives. So many of us can understand Rufio’s fears over being usurped by someone who he felt had abandoned them all, and who among us didn’t feel a deep sadness when Rufio was killed? Any fondness we may have had for Hook until that point was gone. And what parents didn’t keenly feel Moira’s incredible relief when her children were safely back in her arms after fearing she’d never see them alive again?

    If anything, this movie doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

  3. Greg says:

    The REAL “Peter Pan” prequel “The Little White Bird” was written by J.M. Barrie in 1902. In 1904 he wrote the play “Peter Pan” & in 1911 he wrote the book “Peter & Wendy,” both of which contain the short version of Peter Pan’s origin story.

  4. anonymous says:

    Christmas opening would have been better! Memories of Peter Pan toys hook and reading the childhood classic was always a holiday thing for me and a lot of people

    like it or not this movie was amazing! don’t let media tell u if its great see it for yourself then decide!!

  5. Pan wasn’t bad it just wasn’t good. You have a bunch of good actors but the story isnt there. They tried to do too much imho they crammed as much backstory as possible into it where there wasn’t much needed.

  6. A says:

    So what if the movie is busy? Some of us like that. The trailers were absolutely beautiful and visionary. The movie is probably good too.

  7. irwinator1992 says:

    Greg Berlanti’s production credit is more than enough to justify why this movie sucks. We’ve all seen what he did to Green Lantern back in 2011, and yet he keeps making movies. Why?!? He is a complete laughing stock! Can someone send him packing already?!?!

  8. Freddy says:

    This is gonna flop hard. Who’s the idiot that that gave this movie a $150 million budget. Wtf?

  9. KWK says:

    Not surprised at all by this review. When I downloaded the trailer for PAN months ago, I thought it was an eyesore…an overproduced mess; it made HOOK look positively restrained by comparison. I’m giving this too-often-told tale a pass.

  10. GKN says:

    “Set in a Dickensian London orphanage during the worst of the Nazi bombing”? What century are we in? 19th or 20th? And “the only Caucasian – Tiger Lily”?? Among other incoherent details my head is spinning with, whether of this review or the film itself is hard to say!

  11. cadavra says:

    And thanks to this, the wonderful Broadway musical “Peter and the Starcatcher” will now likely never be filmed.

  12. Georgie King says:

    I thought it was quite good. The film would be improved if you left Tiger Lilly and Kwahu on the cutting room floor for their disappointing performances. Levi Miller was excellent, particularly for a newcomer.

  13. macd says:

    Excellent review. The Brothers Warner should delay the release of this monstrosity until Halloween. If the real world of today isn’t enough to send the kiddies to bed with nightmares, “Pan” certainly will!

  14. Jj says:

    Wow. That’s a pan. Pun intended.

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