Written by Jason Fuchs
Directed by Joe Wright
Peter Pan gets the Star Wars treatment by way of Baz Luhrmann in Joe Wright’s Pan, an attempt at putting a somewhat original spin on a children’s classic. In true Hollywood style, however, the film is so hampered by studio notes that it almost completely collapses underneath the weight. The result is a broadly entertaining, visually stunning but somewhat problematic adventure story that tries to marry the source material with new ideas that is not as successful as Wright must have hoped.
This origin tale casts J.M. Barrie’s titular hero (played here by Levi Miller) as a chosen one, destined to unite the human and fairy tribes of Neverland against the evil pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who is using child labour to mine for ‘pixum’, fairy dust that has magical properties. Of course, Peter can’t do it alone, so he enlists the help of a fellow slave by the name of James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), his bumbling friend Mr. Smee (Adeel Akhtar), and the tough and extremely capable tribal warrior Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). Needless to say, high adventure ensues as Peter learns his true destiny and finds himself on the path toward becoming the character beloved by children throughout the world.
Pan is a mess, but an interesting one. Joe Wright is a very talented filmmaker and, in a way, is a perfect fit for this material, as his increasingly extravagant style is set loose here. Even the script (by Jason Fuchs) makes a fair attempt at extrapolating from the source material and sprinkling on more than a little inspiration from a galaxy far, far away; essentially, Peter is Luke Skywalker, James Hook is Han Solo, Tiger Lily is Princess Leia, and Blackbeard is a pixie dust-addicted Darth Vader and it all, amusingly, kind of works. The problem, ultimately, is that there is a bit too much push and pull between the story elements, the visual flourishes, and the set pieces; the film never quite gels into something more than the sum of its parts.
Letting Joe Wright off the leash turns out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Pan contains some of cinema’s most inventive imagery and action sequences in recent memory. One sequence in particular, which features a dogfight between Royal Air Force combat planes and a flying pirate ship through the nocturnal skies of WWII London is probably one of the most eye-opening and impressive action scenes outside of Mad Max: Fury Road. On the other hand, there are some choices made that feel almost arbitrary, as they are cribbed completely from other films. Speaking of Fury Road, Blackbeard’s ‘pixum’ mine is filled with thousands of chanting child slaves that can’t help but call to mind Immortan Joe and his water-starved congregation. Not to mention the chanting itself, which finds the children all singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which would be a novel touch if it weren’t ripped straight out of Moulin Rouge.
There are many details in the film that both Wright and Fuchs add to make the world of Neverland feel lived-in, which again is only partially successful. The character of Blackbeard and his pirates have a deep and disturbing history which is only briefly touched upon, and feels wholly original in its mystery, while all the winks and nods to the original Peter Pan story feel shoehorned in. There is also an over-reliance on exposition to make sure the young target audience understand what is going on. There are also two full animated sequences that tell two different parts of the film’s backstory, which are almost completely unnecessary and demonstrate an unwillingness to give young audiences the benefit of the doubt.
Then there are the performances. Hugh Jackman is terrifically campy, yet subtly terrifying as Blackbeard, while Levi Miller, on the other hand, can’t quite rise to the challenge. Garrett Hedlund plays his young James Hook far too broadly, like he is trying to out-camp Jackman, with very mixed results. Then there is Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily. Not to diminish her abilities as an actor – because she is actually really great in this role – but the fact that a Caucasian actress is playing a traditionally Native American role is one of the most blatant examples of Hollywood whitewashing in recent memory. Although Pan deserves credit for including strong, capable female warrior who does most of the heavy lifting in the action scenes, to have had the opportunity to cast a Native American actress, then actively choose not to go that way, is a shame.
Although a pretty decent attempt at rebooting a known character for a new generation, the entire enterprise feels hamstrung by studio interference and/or contractual obligations demanded by the Barrie estate. The film is so full of ideas (some brilliant, others completely misguided) that even the most overstimulated child will feel that there is too much going on at once. When the subtle shades of characterization and the full scope of its visual majesty are working, the film positively soars, but when the over-simplified elements and hammering home of the “chosen one” archetype rears its ugly head, just like in every child- and teen-targeted franchise these days, Pan ultimately suffers a crash landing.