Movie Review: Pan (2015)

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If you have ever found yourself pondering the origins of Peter Pan, then you have already missed the point of J.M. Barrie’s eponymous Victorian fable of “The Boy Who Would Never Grow Up.” Peter Pan is not meant to be exposed for motivation, but should be seen as a beacon for our younger selves to invoke a perpetual childlike wonderment, a longing for continual innocence, and (of course) a sense of transcendental magic that invites alleviation of our burdensome realities. Venturing other fictional routes or exploring psychological injections might have some use, and any attempt to explore these ill-conceived ideas certainly has justification in creative purpose and artistic integrity. Unfortunately, Joe Wright’s Pan—a flatly embellished prequel/origin tale void of originality, strained for amusement, and reeking of desperation—never comes close to finding any sensible justification. To say that Pan misses the mark in creative purpose, artistic intention, or even pure entertainment escapism is quite the generous understatement, because that would imply the film actually possesses an aim beyond callous franchise building. This “new adventure” is a recycling of feckless, clichéd plot lines and a shameless pillaging of borrowed qualities from better films, ranging from George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001). A Peter Pan origin tale needs to enhance our understanding of the boy and those moments that shaped him into a pioneer for eternal youth and innocence. Pan neglects this truth of character in its arduous and frenetic re-imagining, leaving us with a film that barely reaches the shallow heights of generic.

Pan opens by stating, “Sometimes, friends begin as enemies. And sometimes, enemies begin as friends. Sometimes, in order to truly know how things end, we must know how they begin.” Sometimes, the classics do not benefit from reinvention, but that didn’t stop screenwriter Jason Fuchs (who has one of the more unfortunate last names in all of history). That is not to say Fuchs has broken an unspoken rule of sanctity for the original material, because there have been numerous interpretations of the flying boy wonder, most notably Disney’s many additions to their notable 1953 animated classic as well as Steven Spielberg’s slightly charming re-imagining with Hook (1991). But what Fuchs has done with this current film is rather strange, and simply unforgivable in cinematic terms. The creation of a new origin mythology for Pan is rooted in the everlasting and tired trope of “The Chosen One,” or more specifically, the reluctant Messiah who must learn to believe in himself. It’s an exceptionally lazy screenplay device—a device so incredibly prominent in modern entertainment that it is beginning to damage the reputations of films which used the theme well, such as Star Wars(1977) or The Matrix (1999). When simplified, the plot is completely ridiculous. Essentially, Peter Pan (Levi Miller) may be the one prophesied to put an end to the brutal slave labor perpetrated by the evil Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) as he mines for fairy dust, in order that he may look young, and live forever. Vanity, greed, and vengeance permeate this “child friendly” tale, and neither is ventured with genuine thoughtfulness.

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But, beyond the script’s repetitive truisms, deeper problems lay at the faulty heart of Pan. Violent tone changes—from the lively to the tearful to the completely sinister—make the film drastically uneven, as it struggles to find a median between gaiety and pitilessness. There seems a desperation to replicate the darker aspects from previous franchises where humor blended successfully with wickedness, from Harry Potter to Pirates of the Caribbean, all of which have greater self-awareness than anything attempted throughout Joe Wright’s misguided interpretation. J.M. Barrie’s original material had its fair share of dark musings, including the depiction of children as heartless beings, the psychosis of Peter’s dislike to being touched, and the celebrated axiom that death must be “an awfully big adventure.” This current rendition cannot seem to find the poetry within the darkness, as it blends swash-buckling merriment with scenes of mass genocide of a fairy community by fire (no claps are bringing those helpless creatures back). Trapped in the midst of this exceptional mess of a film is a cast desperately trying to find their charming welcome, but is plagued by the script’s hollowness—ordinary at its best and exaggerated at its worst. Levi Miller represents the infamous Peter Pan, bringing brashness and occasional charm to invoke believability. On the other side, Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard is seen bloviating and sneering with complete hyperbole, never finding a modicum of controlled menace, while Garrett Hedlund as the “friend who turns into an enemy” Captain Hook over-stresses every syllable and forcibly swaggers, with no sense of subtlety. All of these pieces play part in Pan’s inability to justify it’s telling, and explicitly underscores the film’s impoverished imagination.

All of this proves the underestimated difficulty behind bringing literary adaptations to life, especially that of Peter Pan. Director Joe Wright is all too familiar with the ambitious—he has brought an unmatched visual splendor to numerous adaptations, including the adequate Pride & Prejudice (2005), the overrated romance of Atonement (2007), and the vividly underrated yet still unfulfilling Anna Karenina (2012). Even though Pan has some features of Wright’s signature aesthetic obsessions, the palette of the film is far from inspiring as it ranges from washed-out gloom to nauseating cheer. Even the action—a staple for any typical blockbuster, let alone one about pirates, fairies, crocodiles, and mermaids—isn’t captured with his usual cinematic flair, as the imagery becomes chaotic and indecipherable. The strangest feature Wright has brought to his clearly desperate and lacking adaptation is John Powell’s score through the use of an anachronistic soundtrack sung a cappella, including Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”—an insistent and distracting score that spells out the film’s emotional points instead of complimenting them. It’s an unconvincing use of Luhrmann-esqe mimicry, proving that imitation is not the best form of flattery. The truly disappointing part about Pan is Wright’s desperate need to please on a visual level, showing that he has the capability of bringing a sense of wonderment to the origin of Peter Pan. There are some instances of enrapturing brilliance, as he so often brings to the screen, especially with lush imagery in the settings, an intriguing animated sequence, and unfailingly graceful camerawork (from consistent collaborators Seamus McGarvey and John Mathieson). But, those moments are fleeting, never fully distracting you from the chore of sitting through the tiresome platitudes and non-existent charm of the film.

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That is what’s truly missing from Pan: charm. There is certainly a bit to be found in the capable talents of Levi Miller. Even in Hedlund’s extremely forced flirtations with mimicking Harrison Ford’s best performances we find hints of it (there’s so much Han Solo it borders on the plagiaristic). Unfortunately, Wright loses track of what could have been a revival of childhood wonder and idealist fun by indulging in a script that lacks enough foundation to justify venturing into this interpretation. His version of our heroic Peter Pan is inhibited by vengeance (the lowest of motivations) and his mischievous persona disappears into misguided notions of motherly reception. It is a film that over-promises in grandeur and ambition to uncover the mythos of Peter Pan, only offering boilerplate sentiments and overly visited themes. To build a world as magical as  that of J.M. Barrie’s takes more than admiration. A clear understanding of the core material is truly necessary, or at least an appreciation for Peter as he was intended, before mapping his beginnings. In essence, Peter Pan is a poignant figure that inspires our imaginations. This elaborate, yet lazy attempt to construct a backstory demonstrates that Wright, Fuchs, and Co. never bothered to recognize Peter, and by the end you are still left wondering as to who exactly was “The Boy Who Would Never Grow Up.”

Grade: C-

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