The first question has to be why? Why does this movie exist? How much more can this character be squeezed dry for content? The sheer number of reboots retellings and remakes of this one story is getting to be cause for concern. Since the 1920s J. M. Barrie’s classic tale about a boy who wouldn’t grow up has been mined for all its worth, though not by Hollywood standards. Now we have Pan, and we get two for the price of one, learning about the origins of the titular flying boy and his future nemesis Captain Hook while revisiting all the mainstays of the favorite children’s story. This is the trend now in movies, mostly likely thanks to the endless stream of superhero movies that feel it compulsory to tell the beginnings of popular characters. With two recent Snow White adaptations playing with origins and the box office success of Maleficent (2014), which detailed that villain’s roots green-lighting Disney to give backstory to Cruella de Vil and more coming soon, it seems like open season on timeless tales.
Pan is a remarkable mess and I mix these two words together with a purpose as there are some remarkable visuals that will assuredly appeal to younger audiences and perhaps, hopefully, inspire some imagination but the experience otherwise is a troublesome one at best. While those visuals can be good to look at, they also seem oddly flat and sterile. Modern film goers are becoming adept at spotting and gaging the quality of the CGI their films are immersed in and there is a breaking point where the fantasy is replaced by disappointment. But that’s not the issue. The story itself lacks depth, retools the tone, setting and style of the original, and and is a host of poor decisions that leave the movie not only one to forget, but a lesson for studios considering milking a brand name for too much.
The story begins with Peter (Levi Miller), as a baby, abandoned on the steps of an orphanage by a weepy mother (Amanda Seyfried) who I assume will be the focus of Pan II: Why She Did It. It skips ahead to him as a 12-year-old precocious and curious boy who discovers the cruel Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke) is hoarding food, so naturally, she calls upon pirates to steal him away where he is captured and taken to the magical Neverland where he is made a slave for the nasty Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Blackbeard has a whole colony of wretched souls digging in the mines for elusive fairy dust. There, poor Peter meets an older boy named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) who after some prodding becomes his friend so right away you know there is sequel in mind (though based on the disastrous box office returns, that’s has no doubt been abandoned). On his first day though, he is accused of stealing dust and tossed off a plank far above a pit, but wouldn’t you know it, learns that he can fly. This all sounds exciting and adventurous and even a little frightful but instead is dreary, incomprehensible and altogether rather strange.
That strangeness starts with the odd Blackbeard (who looks like a Final Fantasy villain) along with hundreds of filthy little boys singing Nirvana’s 1991 grudge rock classic Smells Like Teen Spirit as he addresses the slaves. Forget the anachronism of the tune, it just doesn’t make sense. But little does. The steampunk world that Neverland is envisioned as doesn’t fit the lore and the characters within feel contrived and lifeless. Action scenes are paced like video game sequences where I almost expected a score to pop-up at the end of each and the oppressive atmosphere, mindless dialog and lazy script make this a punishing exercise in patience.
But let’s talk about the characters a bit more. Miller is adequately childlike but simply has no charisma for the part. He’s nothing compared to Hedlund though, who is textbook Hollywood hunk with chiseled chin and steely eyes, but is as bland as white bread. Worse is the talented Rooney Mara who plays Tiger Lilly, a member of the Neverland natives who appear to be a mix of just about every race imaginable, but dressed like stereotypical tribal people living in huts and wearing feathers. It feels uncomfortable watching, as the filmmakers try to subvert the Elephant in the room by not directly addressing them as the “Indians” we know they are meant to represent. And Mara, who uses words like “tribe” and “brave” is cringeworthy. What year is this?
Everything seems forced and in service to the production rather than the story. It’s also far more violent than it should be with a significant amount of brutal on-screen deaths and scenes of aggression that are entirely unnecessary and rob of it of being something for young children, who are surely the intended audience. It’s one misstep after another and offers absolutely no joy, something that would seem like number one a list of things to include in story concerning Peter Pan.
Director Joe Wright is not new to bringing books to film. In fact it seems to be his calling. With Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007), and Anna Karenina (2012), Wright has shown some great skill with dramatic work and I particularly liked Karenina with its sumptuous style and elegance that Wright really brought to life. But with Pan, he can’t find the right tone and clogs up the screen with too much of everything (3D done wrong), trying to stuff whatever he can in actions to try and fool us into being entertained. No amount of fairy dust could make this one fly.