There’s an opulent pageantry to Pan that is hard to deny. Director Joe Wright’s (Hanna, Atonement, Anna Karenina) reworking of Peter Pan’s classic origin story may be telling a tale that nobody really asked for, but when Hugh Jackman’s ludicrously coiffed villain Captain Blackbeard stalks, stomps and sneers his way through his dialogue, chewing the Crayola-coloured scenery with lip-smacking relish, one can’t help but get swept up in in all the pop art filmic flim-flam.
But while the Tony Award-winning Jackman has the palpable stage presence and vocal weightiness to make his delectably over the top turn work wonderfully, the same cannot be said for some of his over-reaching costars. Garret Hedlund’s young still-two-handed Jim Hook is guilty of this in particular with his mouthy performance occasionally dipping into the realms of cartoonish pantomime (pun not intended).
Wright makes up for this though with gobsmacking visual flourishes. This isn’t so much Neverland as it is Never-boring-land, with this predecessor to JM Barrie’s imagined literary world stuffed to the borders and beyond with fantastical reality-defying flora and fauna. There are ethereal mermaids and kooky giant bone-birds and tribes of natives that don’t die but rather explode in a riot of colour so fabulous that they would leave a gay pride parade envious. And of course a really big crocodile. All these kaleidoscopic visuals – and colourful sidestepping of death – mean that younger kids will probably get far more of a kick out of this than adults.
Especially since they have a fellow young kid in lead Levi Miller to cheer for. The 13-year old newcomer plays the titular Peter, a rambunctious rapscallion in WWII-era London, left to the non-existent mercy of the porcine Mother Barnabas after Peter’s mysterious mom left him on the steps of her orphanage as a baby. Despite Mother Barnabas’ cruel declarations to the contrary, Peter has never lost hope that his mother will return for him one day, holding onto the pan necklace she left him with as a reminder of this imagined promise.
But before you can say “precocious movie hero kid”, Peter is literally snatched from his dreadful life to a big adventure, as he and some fellow orphans are sold by Mother Barnabas to a troupe of outlandish pirates on a magical flying boat. Peter’s disbelief at this gravity-defying craft is put on the backburner as the first of many breakneck CG-fied action set pieces sees the flying ship engage in a whopper of a chase with WW2 fighter plans above London, before eventually making the loopy transition to the magical Neverland.
It’s here that Peter meets Blackbeard, a seemingly immortal tyrant with a thing for anachronistic 90’s Nirvana music (one of a few bizarre out-of-left field choices that Wright makes) currently engaged in a decades long war with both the tribal natives and a race of fairies. Blackbeard needs the slave labour to mine for “pixem” aka solidified fairy dust for his own nefarious means, but has a proverbial spanner thrown in his works when he discovers that one of his newest slaves, Peter, may just be “the boy who can fly”, the focus of a prophecy that would apparently kill him one day.
In an effort to elude Blackbeard’s decadently wardrobed clutches, Peter teams up with fellow prisoners Hook and Smee (Adeel Akhtar) to stage a great escape that eventually – after much frantic running, leaping and sailing around to the film’s boisterous score – sees them crash landing right in the midst of the chromatically crazy natives led by warrior princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), who holds some key information about Peter’s past and forces them – in particular Hook – to pick a side in this war.
I have to pause here for an aside: Much criticism has been leveled at the Caucasian Mara’s casting in a role that was traditionally depicted as Native American. And while my knee-jerk reaction is to take affront at yet another case of Hollywood whitewashing, after watching Pan I realize that it’s not so cut and dry. There’s no way around the fact that the classic depiction of Tiger Lily and her people could be considered grossly offensive today – portraying Native Americans as nothing more than tribal primatives – and to circumvent this, Wright and screenwriter Jason Fuchs (Ice Age: Continental Drift, Wonder Woman) have instead created an authentic tribe of Neverland natives, comprised of a mish-mash of races and cultural affectations.
This essentially means that any person of any skin colour/cultural heritage could really be Tiger Lily, which is a neat way of dodging that bullet. But if Tiger Lily could be anybody, then why cast a white girl instead of giving a person of colour the opportunity? But by casting a person of colour, would that then just highlight the offensive native aspect they were trying to avoid in the first place? That’s the rub here and one that I really cannot work out without doing in my head.
What I can easily parse though is that the talented Mara is sort of wasted in this role; introduced as a fiery warrior she is soon relegated either to the role of Princess Exposition or Bland Female Companion #1. There’s also a clear chemistry disconnect between her and Hedlund’s Hook, the latter of which is played more as a braggadocious Han Solo-esque rogue than the mustache-twirling villain we would eventually come to know. Hedlund handles the action hero beats with aplomb, but his foghorn line delivery occasionally makes it feel like he’s starring in a different movie to everybody else.
And although he occasionally stumbles as well, Miller does a better job of it, selling both Peter’s initial denial of being this prophesied liberator, and then completely leaning into his heroic swashbuckling destiny. This despite the fact that Fuchs’ script rushes through this transition a fair bit; much like how it plays loose and fast with some other aspects of the narrative, rapidly leaping over story beats just to set up the next big zany CG-overloaded blockbuster action sequence.
And for some – especially if you’re still quite young – that will be enough, as what Wright has produced here is essentially a technically magnificent theme park ride, stuffed full of brightly coloured pyrotechnics and all sorts of bells and whistles. It occasionally veers in unexpected directions (seriously, that Nirvana song completely comes out of nowhere), but it boasts eye-popping designs and is often fun. There’s also that completely over the top cackling puppet of a villain that always pops up to cheers and screams. Just a pity that the rest of it is a bit of a bumpy ride.
Last Updated: October 13, 2015