Review: PAN, Far From The Disaster You Might Want It To Be
Following his adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina, Joe Wright next turns his attentions to J.M. Barrie's boy who never grew up. But instead of bringing the adventures of Peter, Wendy and Captain Hook to the big screen, Pan is a prequel, charting Peter's arrival in Neverland and showdown with legendary pirate Blackbeard. What's most surprising is that despite pushing fans well outside their comfort zones, Pan actually proves relatively entertaining.
London, World War II. Since his mother abandoned him as a baby, Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) has grown up in an orphanage with only a pan-pipe pendant to remind him of his roots. Now 12 years old, Peter discovers the letter his mother left him, promising they will meet again "in this world or another". But before he can act on it, he is kidnapped by flying pirates and whisked off to Neverland, where he is to mine for fairy dust at the behest of villainous Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).
Befriending a young rogue named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), and with foreman Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar) unwillingly in tow, Peter escapes the mine and goes in search of his mother, whom he is convinced is somewhere on the island. Venturing into the jungle, they encounter the "natives" and Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), who believes Peter to be a prophesied "chosen one" here to defeat Blackbeard and liberate Neverland. The pirate, meanwhile, is looking for a rumoured fairy hive for his own diabolical reasons.
Pan follows a frustrating Hollywood trend of insisting everything has an origin story, of over-explaining its narratives and answering enigmatic questions, the answers to which never prove as interesting as the mystery. Perhaps George Lucas and the Star Wars franchise are to blame, but it is ever-present in the stiflingly en vogue superhero genre too. As a result, we now know how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, how Oz the Great and Powerful came to become The Wizard, even how James Bond gained his licence to kill, not that anybody asked.
Pan now offers that same unnecessary origin story to Peter Pan, showing us where he came from, how he ended up in Neverland, learned to fly and took up the hobby of taking down sea-faring marauders. In that other terrible affectation, seen most recently in FOX's Batman-ish TV show Gotham, we also see the prominent characters from Peter Pan in place and well-acquainted with each other long before their well-documented encounters. So Peter and Hook are friends rather than enemies, Smee works for Blackbeard, although Barrie said that Hook was Blackbeard's boatswain. Tiger Lily gets funny feelings for Hook, who flirts with a mermaid, and the crocodile is already circling that hand of his, while Tinkerbell is little more than a cognisant firefly. It's all rather unnecessary.
Pan often looks, sounds and definitely feels wrong, and yet somehow the film just about manages to get away with it.
Joe Wright has already proved himself a capable and ambitious filmmaker, never afraid to transplant his theatrical roots into his cinematic aesthetic, often making period pieces feel incredibly modern and relevant. His adaptations of literary greats Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy and Ian McEwan have felt both faithful and innovative, staying true to both their period settings and their contemporary audiences. Conversely, he has also managed to take the pulpy B-movie action scenario of Hanna and turn it into a techno-infused visually resplendent fairytale.
Pan attempts to float far too many disparate and unwieldy ideas simultaneously, but in and of themselves, many of them work rather wonderfully. The opening movement in a London orphanage is tense and exciting, establishes Peter's cocky and capable demeanour, while also gifting Kathy Burke with her finest role in years. Peter is then whisked off into the night sky, only to become embroiled in a full-blown dogfight, which enables Wright to film some incredible 3D action as galleons and spitfires exploit the vertiginous depths of his frame.
Blackbeard's cavernous Neverland fairydust mines will surely one day evolve into Immortan Joe's Citadel, while the natives' jungle hideout puts an aboriginal twist on the Ewok villages of Endor. There is, unavoidably, a great debt to be paid to Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, as well as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, while Wright's film indisputably breathes more depth and vitality into the material than Spielberg managed with his equally ill-advised sequel, Hook.
Perhaps sensing the sheer sensory overload of their surroundings, the cast shoots for the rafters with their larger-than-life performances, and none more so than Hugh Jackman. His Blackbeard easily steals the show, and the film's marketing campaign has wisely centred around him than his pint-sized leading man. Part samurai, part child catcher, Blackbeard is a mishmash of cinematic bogeymen and Jackman cranks his performance up to pantomime levels of rambunctious snarling.
Elsewhere, there are eye-catching turns from the aforementioned Burke and Four Lions' Akhtar as the man who will become Hook's underling, Smee. Hedlund, on the other hand, plays Hook as something approaching a dashing hero, with a vocal affectation that's somewhere between James Coburn and John Huston. It is a bizarre interpretation of the character who will eventually become Peter's nemesis, and their camaraderie here seems positively confounding rather than playfully ironic. Sadly the female characters - Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell and Peter's mother (played by Amanda Seyfried) - are sorely underwritten.
The upside to all this is that whenever Jackman is not onscreen, the coast is clear for young Levi Miller to run away with the film, which he does with remarkable ease. His Peter is confident, charming, nuanced and nimble, as he flits from comedic shenanigans to death-defying peril to tearful remembrances of his dead family. It is a sensational debut that should see Miller snap up every prepubescent role going for the next couple of years.
A film with great ambitions, despite it not always being apparent exactly what those ambitions might be, Pan proves much more than the sum of its parts. Wright's direction assures there is never a dull moment on screen, so even when characters we recognise are interacting in ways that may actually jeopardise the existence of the core text from which they originate, it scarcely seems to matter. On the strength of its sheer visual audacity, if nothing else, Pan manages to tap into the magic of Neverland.
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