Pan falls short at being either an imaginative origin story for Peter Pan and/or a satisfying standalone big-budget fantasy adventure.
Pan introduces us to Peter (Levi Miller), a twelve-year old boy – living in WWII era London – whose mother (Amanda Seyfried) mysteriously left him at an all-boys orphanage when he was still an infant. Peter and his best friend Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) come to realize that boys at the orphanage have been vanishing without a trace, but cannot figure out who is responsible – until one night, when Peter and several of his fellow orphans are kidnapped by a band of pirates (armed with a flying ship), who then whisk the children away to a distant magical place known as Neverland. There, Peter is forced into slave labor by the pirates and their leader, Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).
However, when Peter inadvertently foils his own execution (in a most extraordinary way), Blackbeard comes to the conclusion that Peter is the boy who is prophesied to bring about his downfall. Peter then escapes before Blackbeard can kill him and sets out with the hope of finding his mother – though, with help from one James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and Neverland native princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), Peter might end up fulfilling a destiny that he never expected.
Pan, as written by Jason Fuchs (Ice Age: Continental Drift), is a re-imagining of the Peter Pan mythos that serves as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic play/novel “Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”, as well as an origin story for the eponymous character. Unfortunately, the film does so by crafting a messiah or “chosen one” narrative that unfolds in a very formulaic manner, offering a derivative spin on many tropes while at the same time cribbing elements that’ve been used to greater effect in similar fantasy stories (Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, etc.). Pan also banks heavily on filmgoers being familiar with the original Peter Pan story – frequently repurposing famous lines from the book/play and foreshadowing events that are only distantly relevant to what is happening in the movie – yet fails to offer fresh insight on the themes and ideas that are raised in Barrie’s original fairy tale.
The Pan mythology, as presented on the big screen, in turn feels incomplete as a standalone mythology and winds up mostly convoluting the history of Peter Pan and Neverland, rather than expanding upon them. Fuchs’ scipt, to be fair, neither attempts to give explanations for the more fantastical elements of the Peter Pan story, nor does it (generally) go out of its way to directly setup events in its predecessor – something that allows the film to better retain the playfulness of Barrie’s work without suffering from too strong a case of “prequel-itis”, as a result. There are even a handful of plot elements that suggest an earlier draft of the Pan script might’ve stood better on its own (a la the Peter Pan prequel book/play, “Peter and the Starcatchers”) than the final version that ended up on screen.
From a directorial perspective, Pan does benefit from having Joe Wright at the helm in certain respects. Wright’s movies rarely fail to impress in terms of their visuals (see Atonement, Anna Karenina, and so on) and Pan likewise boasts some creative, if hodgepodge, costumes and practical production design in general by Aline Bonetto (Amélie). Unfortunately, the CGI elements of the film don’t always meld that well with the non-digital components – giving rise to a number of sequences that have a distinct “green screen” look – and the practical components are overwhelmed by the big-budget CGI spectacle; itself, frequently derivative of the CGI from such tentpoles as Avatar and – sorry to say – The Last Airbender. Neverland, in turn, comes off as less of a living and breathing place and more a collection of expensive set pieces (unlike the fairy tale-inspired setting of Wright’s film Hanna).
Pan cinematographers Seamus McGarvey (Wright’s frequent collaborator) and John Mathieson (X-Men: First Class, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) shot the film in such a fashion that certain imagery does benefit from viewing in 3D – either taking advantage of the depth of field that is afforded by 3D (during scenes set atop flying pirate ships) or providing pop-out screen effects. Nevertheless, the 3D aspect of the film pales in comparison to recent movies that have also featured action sequences that unfold from great heights (see Everest and The Walk). Similarly, a number of scenes from Pan feature either a darker or relatively muted color palette that isn’t enhanced by 3D – meaning that while 3D doesn’t hurt the Pan viewing experience, it’s not a necessity either.
Newcomer Levi Miller is perfectly serviceable in the role of young Peter in Pan, though the way the character is written – a cross between a youthful free-spirit and a reluctant hero archetype – results in what feels like a watered-down version of how Peter Pan is typically portrayed. Garrett Hedlund (TRON: Legacy) also gives a good natured performance as the young James Hook, though the character is little more than the typical wise-cracking, self-concerned, sidekick type. By comparison, Adeel Akhtar as Mr. Sam ‘Smee’ Smiegel – who, like Hook, is not yet a pirate in the film – delivers more of an over the top performance (for better and worse), much like the other noteworthy character actors in the cast – such as Nono Anozie (Cinderella), playing Blackbeard’s second in command, Bishop.
Speaking of Blackbeard: the character is essentially a tweaked version of the Captain Hook character in Pan, and Hugh Jackman very much chews the scenery while he’s playing the role – sometimes for the better, sometimes not – but ultimately, the Blackbeard character fails to add anything new to the Peter Pan mythology that the (older) Hook before him didn’t (sidenote: Blackbeard also gets an exceptionally weird introduction in the film). Similarly, the decision to make the natives of Neverland a multi-ethnic group, rather than literal Native Americans, helps to distinguish Pan from Peter Pan adaptations past – but only on a surface level. The same goes for the decision to play up the warrior aspect of Tiger Lilly’s personality, yet not give Rooney Mara much else to work with.
Pan falls short at being either an imaginative origin story for Peter Pan and/or a satisfying standalone big-budget fantasy adventure, when all is said and done. Director Joe Wright’s usual inventiveness as a cinematic storyteller gets lost amidst the CGI malaise of the film, while the movie’s attempt to craft a more complicated mythology out of the relatively simple Peter Pan story might’ve worked – but would have required a far less conventional and run of the mill approach, in order to do so.
With that is mind, Pan is a family-friendly offering (if a hollow one) and serves up enough stylish eye candy – while also keeping the proceedings light – that it could be more pleasing to some moviegoers, especially those of a younger age. However, as far as Peter Pan movies go, there have been far better renditions – be they traditional live-action adaptations (see, for example, P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan) or continuations of the original story by J.M. Barrie (see Steven Spielberg’s Hook).
Pan is now playing in 2D and 3D U.S. theaters. It is 111 minutes long and is Rated PG for fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material.
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