Pan (Joe Wright, 2015)
Never having been a particular fan of Peter Pan growing up, I was unaware of the shifting origins of the character (changes in age, personality, motivation) or of the fact that the play, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, came before the novel, Peter and Wendy (1904 and 1911, respectively). I had seen (I think) the 1953 Walt Disney animated version, and that was it. Yet somehow, the flying boy created by Scottish writer J.M. Barrie was such a part of popular culture by the time I came into the world that I have always felt as if I knew of him, if not about him (with many adaptations beyond Disney’s).
And now comes a new film, entitled simply Pan. Directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) – no stranger to bold interpretations of established texts – the film promised (at least from its trailer) visual delights and a fresh take on the 100+-year-old story. Would that it were so, Joe. Instead, what we have is a movie with nary an original thought in its director’s head. A pastiche of virtually every action/adventure/fantasy/sci-fi trope ever created, Pan is almost worth watching for the spectacle of the chutzpah of it all. It turns out, however, that stealing from better (or, just previously made) work does not a quality production make. If I were pitching this to studio executives, I’d frame it as a mashup of Avatar, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Oliver!, Harry Potter, Mad Max (Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road) and even Pixar’s Up (you’ll get it when you see the big birds). And those are just the ones I can remember. I lost track after a while.
Ostensibly a prequel to Barrie’s tales, Pan introduces us to baby Peter as his mother (Amanda Seyfried, Ted 2) abandons him on the steps of a London orphanage. Flash forward 12 years, and we’re in the middle of World War II, with the Battle of Britain raging above the orphanage, where Peter (bland newcomer Levi Miller) and his mates try their best to live under the care of some obese and nasty nuns. Mother Superior is a real piece of work, and her charges have a tendency to disappear at night. It turns out she’s made a deal with space pirates (or are they just magical … I’m not sure), who come in the dark to kidnap orphaned boys. Sure enough, Peter is caught in the latest roundup, and soon finds himself aboard a flying schooner, first in the middle of an aerial dogfight and then in sudden near- (and then far-) earth orbit. Strange and incomprehensible (and also, I’ll admit, oddly beautiful)? Just wait until we get to Neverland.
Ah, Neverland, home of floating islands (that’s where Avatar comes in) and the brutal pirate dictator Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, in a performance about as broad as it gets). He’s a mean one, and perhaps his cruelty is best exemplified by his insistence that his minions join him in a chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I know you think I’m joking, but I’m not. From there, it’s steadily more absurd. Garret Hedlund (On the Road) shows up as Captain Hook (before he and Peter become enemies), doing his best Harrison Ford imitation (as both Han Solo and Indiana Jones), and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is on hand as Tiger Lily to remind us how Hollywood always gets ethnic casting wrong (although I think the overall “ethnic” portrayal of the “natives” of Netherland to be more problematic than Rooney’s casting, alone). Add some fairies and mermaids to the mix, and you have an overstuffed mess. That’s also not without the occasional flash of mild interest. Mild.