Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund
Loud, hammy, and laughably anachronistic, Joe Wright’s unnecessary adaptation attempts to give a “fresh” origin story to J.M. Barrie’s well-known characters, but succeeds only in killing the magic of the original and throwing all charm and wonder to the crocodiles.
When approaching an adaptation, one should always keep an open mind and analyze it on its own merits, apart from the original that inspired it. This is risky, to be sure, as every adaptation carries the potential to be either a spectacular success or a momentous flop, but the fairest and most logical view should be that of neutrality, and a good-natured trust in the filmmaker’s own creative vision. Unfortunately, this very openness leaves the resulting failure all the more painful, for Joe Wright, whatever his intent in crafting Pan, falls far short of the mark, getting lost in a murky fog of glaring CG and confounding action sequences, and drowned in a hum of overacting, stale deliveries, and bizarre anachronisms in musical choice. The resulting concoction is a poison to Barrie’s legacy and the movie world as a whole, and though not the worst thing to blight the screen this century, has certainly left the worst kind of impression for both long-time Pan fans and newcomers alike.
The story kicks us off in the most conventional and cliched way possible; a baby left on the steps of an orphanage by his surprisingly nimble young mother, his only link to her, a letter, a piece of jewelry, and the inevitable promise to come back and see him “one day.” Wright and his crew do away with all pretenses of subtlety and finesse right from the get go; the infant Peter - and by extension, the audience - are given the full “chosen one” shebang - even before the meat of the plot starts to pickle. This is a lazy move full stop, and can make or break story progression based on the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. Despite this major slip, the first few scenes of this movie were more or less the best in the entire flick, giving young Levi Miller a chance to flex his acting chops and paint a unique portrait of Peter as a vulnerable yet silently courageous child, sparkling with a surprising degree of charm. I am sad to say that this is the best development we see of any actor of the film, and despite Miller’s tolerable effort, the overwrought brutishness and ridiculous outfits of the nuns running his orphanage blotted any light the young actor could generate.
Things only went south from there, for after the plot gained a bit of traction and finally sets off, we’re bereft of even the simple joy of Miller’s modest efforts and thrust head first into an unrecognizable Neverland. Anyone expecting a magical romp through archetypes of boyhood wonder and whimsy are soon disillusioned by a dreary world of industrial mining and forced labor, all presided over by Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, living it up in the hammiest performance I’ve seen him in to date. I usually enjoy Jackman’s brand of tough-guy machismo blended with whatever is required of the script, but this time, he goes a little too far, wallowing in an overplayed corporate cynicism when he isn’t screaming his lines at the tops of his lungs over the blaring, anachronistic rifts of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit,” courtesy of his collective mine slaves, as the pirate ship ferrying Peter docks to unload its latest human cargo.
I want this image to sink in for a minute: a crowd of dirty slave miners, most of them children, all cheering as a flying pirate ship makes landfall, and the flamboyantly-dressed pirate king stands dramatically before them...with everyone chanting the lyrics for an alt rock anthem from the 90s. Never before has a movie scene made me convulse with actual emotional pain, but that’s not even the worst of it. Regardless of your status as an adaptation and your relationship to the source material, as a fantasy film, Wright’s main mission is to maintain his world’s fragile grasp on the audience’s wonder - and hence, their suspension of disbelief. I can understand, on some level, why the filmmakers made the choices they had which resulted in the wide-as-a-mountain deviations from the books; the miners, and Blackbeard’s arbitrary rules on promotions and “demotions” (read: executions) are probably meant to mirror the adult world’s drudgery, and set up Peter’s refusal to grow up. That much is clear, though still a poorly executed waste of potential that fails to factor into Peter’s predestination plot. However, the Nirvana chorus line has no fricking place in the film whatsoever, and I can’t imagine what, if anything, it was supposed to coax out of me besides my bile. All it shows is that Wright and company have no understanding of their genre or what it’s meant to convey - an assessment held up as the movie progresses.
After this early nosedive, the story never regains its balance, helped least of all by the introduction of new characters - Rooney Mara as a static Tiger Lily, and of course, Garrett Hedlund’s “rendition” of a young James Hook. I don’t know what they were going for when they took the suave yet brutal buccaneer and morphed him into a bizarre Indian Jones expy, but even all that aside, it could have worked if Hedlund didn’t drive the Pan Acting School’s theme of shouting your lines in the most exaggerated way possible to the absolute limit. He was devoid of any depth or pizzazz, as heroic or cowardly as the plot demanded him to be, and was generally unlikable through it all. To top it off, Pan’s place as an origin story effectively removes any tension or concern over his fate by the end, so we’re stuck staring at him longer than most of us would care to. Catching a glimpse of how Peter and Hook - the archetypal nemeses of modern children’s literature - interacted before they became enemies was my main draw to this film. However, the dearth of any meaningful interaction between the two, plus Hedlund’s abysmal failure as Hook in general, stripped me of my only real expectation, leaving me lost in Wright’s funhouse horror pit passed off as Neverland.
Beyond these massive stumbling points, Pan has little else to offer its audience. The CGI was lame and unpleasant to look at, especially during the action sequences, which were all, bar the climactic battle, dull and plodding. The whole thing left me scratching my head, wondering where the $150 million they apparently spent on this monstrosity actually went. In fact, exact descriptives of any kind are hard for me to draw up, derivative and just plain boring as this film was. The hamfisted lessons on childhood innocence and adult duplicity were simple-minded at best, and in either case got lost in the film's many other shortcomings.
This isn’t to say that everything in Pan was rage-inducing; a few of the gags worked, and the final battle was less objectionable than the ones preceding it. But that’s all to it, really, and even then, some of the continuity-related asides - like Hook’s fear of crocodiles, or his and Peter’s future as mortal enemies - are told with all the subtlety of a jack-knife to the skull, signalling the filmmakers’ poor grasp of humor, timing - or anything else, to be honest. Pan isn’t just a “bad movie” - those can at least be enjoyable on some level. It fails hard in multiple ways: as an engaging origin story for a collection of beloved characters; as a fantasy film, providing healthy escape through the element of wonder; and even, more broadly, as a lesson in storytelling, proving unable to even get the done-to-death hero’s journey right. While I believe that few things are beyond redemption, Pan’s poor box office returns and total disservice to the very core of film makes the heavily hinted sequel unlikely this side of Neverland.