A film review by Craig J. Koban October 23, 2015

PAN jj

2015, PG-13, 110 mins.


Levi Miller as Peter Pan  /  Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily  /  Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard  /  Amanda Seyfried as Mary  /  Garrett Hedlund as Hook  /  Nonso Anozie as Bishop  /  Kathy Burke as Mother Barnabas  /  Cara Delevingne as Mermaid

Directed by Joe Wright  /  Written by John Fuchs


Joe Wright’s PAN is a film that wages war on itself.  

On one hand, it’s an absolute triumph of costume/production design and state-of-the-art visual effects ingenuity.  This is one of best looking films based on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan mythology that I’ve ever seen.  Unfortunately, the aesthetic brilliance of PAN overshadows the film on a dramatic and story level: There’s simply no one or thing contained in the narrative that I latched onto or felt the need to root for.  It’s a shame that Wright – a remarkably talented visionary that has made such memorable literary adaptations like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, ATONEMENT and ANNA KARENINA and the very underrated assassin thriller HANNA – wasn’t as enraptured with telling a thoroughly compelling Peter Pan origin story as he was with filling the screen with fantastical imagery.  Regrettably, he never makes us care about anyone that populates his film. 

On one hand, though, Wright and writer John Fuchs are at least attempting to take a property that’s been done countless times before – from the classic 1953 Disney animated version to 1991’s Steven Spielberg’s live action HOOK and P.J. Hogan’s fairly decent 2003 iteration – and infuse some much needed new energy into the proceedings.  Everyone that’s probably never seen a Peter Pan film is most likely familiar with its core mythology of fairies, lost boys, pirates, and Neverland, which makes the challenge of staying true to Barrie’s original vision while rebooting it for contemporary audience consumption all the more difficult.  If anything, going in the prequel story territory seems like the most logical choice here, tapping into the story of a World War II era orphan that eventually becomes the titular hero.  PAN certainly deviates from its iconic source material in many ways (most which are welcoming without alarming purists), yet the overall screenplay struggles to make this origin tale compelling and, dare I say, it, required in the first place. 



PAN begins not in Neverland, but rather in our own world as an infant Peter is left on the doorstep of a monastery, but after this very brief prologue we jump forward several years just before the bombing of London by the Nazis in WWII.  Young Peter (a bright eyed and charming Levi Miller) lives a life of constant verbal and physical abuse by the domineering nun that runs the monastery, Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke, almost inanely over the top in her villainy and cruelty).  This woman is so wickedly malevolent that she hoards food from the starving children while selling some of them off to malicious pirates.  These are no any ordinary pirates, though, as their vast ships are able to float through the air and travel through both time and space.  During one particular evening a squad of dastardly pirates kidnaps Peter and whisks him to the magical realm of Neverland.   

PAN’s version of Neverland is arguably the least inviting (initially at least) of any version presented on the silver screen before.  The realm is ruled over by the dictatorial tyrant Blackbeard (an almost unrecognizable High Jackman) that is waging a war against fairies and natives while utilizing children as slave labor.  When Peter is thrown into one of Blackbeard’s mines he’s befriended by another pirate, James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), who gives him a crash course on life under Blackbeard’s maniacal reign.  When Peter is eventually forced to walk the plank and to his death by Blackbeard, he discovers, to his astonishment, that he can fly, even though he has difficult controlling and summoning up his newfangled ability later on.  Of course, Blackbeard is alarmed by this, seeing as there's a prophecy (one of the umpteenth “Chosen One” movie prophecies) that predicts that, one day, a flying boy with end his rule.  Hook and Peter eventually come in contact with Chief Great Little Panther (Jack Charles) and Little Panther (Rooney Mara) and forms an alliance with them to make one last stand against Blackbeard’s forces. 

PAN is far too ambitious minded to be labeled as an outright cinematic failure (as so many other critics have decreed it to be).  Visually, Wright’s film is unquestionably a powerhouse entertainment.  Gifted with a budget that towers over what he has received on his previous films, it’s pretty clear that Wright and company were spared absolutely no expense whatsoever in fully realizing the enormity of Neverland’s otherworldly grandeur.  From lavishly designed costumes, impressively crafted sets with a playful sense of design, and cutting edge CG effects that truly give those aforementioned flying ships a tangible weight and scale, PAN is a truly awe-inspiring feast for eyes throughout.  It’s quite wonderful when a film is rather giving when it comes to the meticulous details that typify and define its world, and on those levels PAN certainly doesn’t disappoint in its attempts to make a Neverland feel like a magical dreamscape. 

It seems only inevitable that the startling visual effects downplay and override PAN’s storyline and characters.  With the possible exception of Peter himself, there’s virtually no one in the rather large ensemble of characters that are developed in any meaningful manner.  Hedlund’s peculiar and oftentimes distracting vocal tenor as Hook suggests Jack Nicholson crossed with Al Pacino…and he plays things so broad and absurdly that he comes off as a cartoon character and not a flesh and blood human being.  Rooney Mara – so devilishly good in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO remake – is woefully miscast as the Native American inspired Tiger Lily, not to mention that she eventually becomes a pre-programmed love interest for Hook (the romantic subplot between them is on pure autopilot).  Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard is also quite befuddling: He plays his antagonist all over the proverbial map so much that it becomes difficult to decipher whether or not he’s playing him up for pure intentional camp value or is just deliriously awful in the role.  Granted, he seems to be the only cast member (outside of young Miller) that displays any kind of emotional pulse in the film. 

Wright makes other choices here that frankly confused the hell out of me.  For example, why on earth does PAN contain not one, but two usages of anachronistic music during two key scenes?  At one point – when Peter is brought to Blackbeard’s slave mine – both the villain and his thousands of broken and beaten child workers bellow out an impromptu cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit.”  This is followed by a later sequence featuring the same miners breaking out a rendition of “Blitzkrieg Bop.”  Why the hell does PAN make use of these song?  For what purposes and context?  PAN is not established as a jukebox musical ala MOULIN ROGUE, which leads Wright’s decision here to include these two songs positively head-scratching.  Curiously, PAN abandons any pretence that this was a good idea and never opts to have any more pop tunes punctuating scenes later on.   

Everything culminates in a grand finale that's designed, I guess, to exhilaratingly sweep us off our collective feat, but by the time the film drew to a close I was more exhausted and overwhelmed than I was thrilled and entertained.  PAN does contain some inspiring action beats (especially one between Hook and a tribal warrior that’s fought on trampolines that’s quite lively and innovative), but beyond the pomp and circumstance of its stunning technical artifice, Wright’s film is just empty on a dramatic level.  I didn’t really care about Peter.  I didn’t really care about his “hero’s journey” in becoming Pan.  I didn’t really care about his companions and their troubles.  And I certainly didn’t really care about the core conflict between Blackbeard and the natives.  When all is said and done, PAN begs one question: Did we truly need a Peter Pan live action origin film?  While watching this film I never gained the impression that Wright and his team even knew the answer to that one. 

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