Pan (2015) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Adeel Akhtar, Nonso Anozie, Amanda Seyfried, Kathy Burke
Small role: Cara Delevingne
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Jason Fuchs
Review published October 9, 2015
Pan feels like the by-product of a process in which Joe Wright took J.M. Barrie's beloved characters and tried to have them play in the world of his favorite childhood things. Dickens' novels, early Terry Gilliam fantasies (Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen especially), Lucasfilm adventures, Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean, steampunk comics, and punk rock and grunge music are all crammed to the brim in a blender, pureed down to a nearly unpalatable concoction, then vomited out on the screen in magnificent, CGI-infused, $150 million production budget format. In this way, it's reminiscent of another attempt to cull disparate aspects of one's cherished childhood, Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch (which also featured inhabitants of an oppressive institution going on crazy adventures set to contemporary pop tunes), which should have proved to everyone that just putting everything cool you can think of into a movie does not necessarily equate to a cool movie. It's a beautiful disaster, visually striking, but spiritually vacant.
Starting out in London around 1930 we find a young and anguished mother (Seyfried, Ted 2) leaving her newborn baby on the doorstep of an orphanage. During the bomb-ravaged times of World War II, years later, the baby has grown into a spirited young lad, Peter (Miller, Jasper Jones), who quickly makes friends with the fellow boys in the orphanage, but even faster enemies with the badgering nuns that run the facility. Things get complicated when Peter learns that other boys have gone mysteriously missing in the night, and he wants to get to the bottom of things before he ends up the same. Peter finds out firsthand soon enough when pirates from the sky descend upon the building and steal him and all the other lads away to their flying pirate ship, run by the ruthless Blackbeard (Jackman, Chappie), who uses them for cheap labor in mining fairy dust from a land he's dubbed Neverland.
However, when a cruel punishment reveals Peter's ability to fly (something the boy didn't even know he had in him), Blackbeard recalls a chosen-one prophecy of a rebellion led by a boy, born from the union of a fairy prince father and human mother, who could fly, and that makes him immediately very wary of Peter. The boy's put into pirate jail, where he soon befriends and American adventurer named James Hook (Hedlund, Unbroken), who springs them out and takes them to the land of fairies who've been transplanted when the pirates took over Neverland, where the scrappy mystic Tiger Lily (Mara, Her) leads. Peter thinks that Neverland has the key to being reunited with his mother again, and together with the newfound rebels, the prophecy Blackbeard fears takes root.
Offbeat is a suit that Pan doesn't wear so well. Attempts to work in contemporary songs like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" confuse the film's already wildly inconsistent tone, especially when you consider that the story is set at a time a good deal prior to these songs' very existence. Yes, Moulin Rouge! did virtually the same, but at least that Baz Luhrman film establishes early what sort of musical it is, whereas Joe Wright's film not only waits until well into the film to introduce the anachronistic songs into the film, it never actually introduces the notion that Pan is supposed to be a musical.
The performances aren't the issue so much as the casting. While Levi Miller has solid screen presence, in a kid-actor way, for a newcomer in Peter, and Jackman hams it up, but in a good and energetic way, as Blackbeard, all of the characters seem to be shot in here from entirely different stories. It's a mix that doesn't work in its favor. The one that stands out most is Garrett Hedlund as James Hook, who camps up his swashbuckling performance with an Indiana Jones/Han Solo vibe, if he were to be channeling Christian Slater-channeling-John Huston while doing it. Rooney Mara, whose eyes make her alluring but her lack of screen charisma make you overlook her, is basically just playing the role Natalie Portman played from the Star Wars prequels -- a feisty princess who kicks butt in close combat -- and the change in racial component from Native American to Caucasian may have some thinking they should also change her name to Tiger Lily White. At least Mara keeps the volume down on her performance, despite everyone around her cranked up to eleven on the sheer volume meter.
Some story elements, themes and side characters, such as Tinkerbell (a cameo, essentially) and a CGI version of Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) as several identical-looking mermaids, are tossed in the mix of the plot at hand, but little is done with them,, perhaps merely set-up for future sequels that seem unlikely to happen, given the critical lashing and audience indifference to the bloated film in its initial theatrical run. One big one is the friendship that forms between Peter and the not-yet-hook-handed Captain Hook, who are traditionally enemies in other Peter Pan works, which is tipped off by the opening voiceover that sometimes friends start as enemies, and enemies as friends. Given that they're still friends at the end, the filmmakers are obviously eyeing a continuation, but we're left with loose ends to a story we're never going to be able to finish. At least most people won't really care.
While the visual elements are stunning, hat the movie really needs is the ability to ground the film into the semblance of reality that will make the fantasy sequences in Neverland truly special, a la the contrast between black-&-white Kansas to Technicolor magic of Oz in The Wizard of Oz. That classic 1939 film gets a nod when Pan itself starts off in black-&-white, but the scenes of the orphanage run by larger-than-life nuns who hoard gold coins still feel like contrived and movie-ish, starting right off with the leaving of Peter in a basket on a doorstep, so the whisking away of the boys on board a flying ship inhabited by pirates seemingly out of Cirque de Soleil feels like it is just another plot element to a young boy's fantasy. We should be marveling at this strange new world Peter and his fellow orphanage mates are in, rather than wondering what the point of it all is.
Pan has lots of interesting, sumptuous visuals going for it, but, somewhat ironically, they all seem to have been mined and pirated like so much of the fairy dust that pervades this story. And like that fairy dust, a drug called Pixum that rejuvenates the appearance of those who smoke it, while the look may be beautiful, shiny and new, but underneath, it's still old, saggy, and decrepit at its core. The film's title alone will tell you what most film critics will do after seeing it.
©2004 Vince Leo