by Philip Price
“Pan” is utterly forgettable. There is no reason for this re-imagined and retooled version to exist beyond Warner Bros. attempting to get in on the current trend of turning classic fairy tales and more specifically, classic animated Disney films, into some kind of live-action confection. What doesn't work here though is the fact the Peter Pan story has been told so many times before and given we've all likely seen at least two iterations of J.M. Barrie's story (even the kids this movie is targeting will have seen Disney's 1953 adventure countless times) there is nowhere for this film to go that doesn't feel like it's either retreading familiar ground or desperately stretching. Unfortunately, the latter is what director Joe Wright's new film does as it options to go back to the beginning and tell us the now obligatory origin story that basically covers all the stuff that happens before all the good stuff happens. The real issue here, though, is in the script from writer Jason Fuchs who contributed to the last ‘Ice Age’ film and is the sole screenwriter on the upcoming ‘Wonder Woman’ feature (not instilling a lot of faith there). There is a lot going on here which only creates more and more issues for the film as it goes on, but the source of each of these issues seems to stem from the main issue of the base story never truly recognizing itself. Each scene is strewn together with no connecting strands, no substance and thus nothing for the next scene to build upon. It's as if Fuchs was figuring out the story for himself as he went along and once he was done, never bothered to go back and write a second draft. Once upon a time I would have killed to see Wright take on huge, fantastical material such as this, but in his first big-budget studio effort the director has delivered what couldn't be a more underwhelming and, like I said in the beginning, forgettable experience.
And so, we walk into “Pan” with the promise of a story that will lead to the one we know so well, but even that seems to be too much for the film to handle. What we are instead dealt is a story of self-discovery that has a 12-year old Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) figuring out his past and how he came to be "the chosen one". Yep, it's that kind of story-the one where an unsuspecting hero is plucked out of their unremarkable circumstances to become the only beacon of hope in a hidden world that has none. He's there to restore peace and order to the galaxy Neverland. These tropes have simply been applied to the story of Peter Pan while Fuchs crosses his fingers and hopes that by throwing in familiar faces like a young James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) that audiences won't notice the laziness of what is actually occurring on screen. I doubt the screenwriter has put any thought into how he'd transform the budding friendship between Peter and Hook this film portrays into the sworn enemies we all know they become. What's worse is he'll never be forced to figure it out because there is no way this thing is getting a sequel let alone its own franchise. Introducing Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) isn't a bad idea, but while Jackman tries his damnedest to give the character some kind of zest he is essentially a walking MacGuffin that gives Fuchs someone to place all the blame on for everything that has gone wrong in Peter's short life as well as give him the worst of motivators so as not to seem completely pointless. This motivation includes mining Neverland for Pixie dust so that he may live forever which inevitably leads the action to a small, hidden society where Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) resides and that also holds the key to a sacred world where pixies (like, you guessed it, Tinker Bell) run wild. It all wants to make sense, but it is constructed so sloppily and with such an apparent lack of care that we find no reason to invest ourselves.
Of course, one doesn't go into a movie hoping for it to be bad and given that I've always enjoyed the 1953 animated version as well as being a child of the ‘90s thus automatically loving Steven Spielberg's “Hook” I was looking forward to what another of my favorite directors might do with the material. There is clearly a lot of imagination that has gone into this piece. The first half hour or so is especially engaging (or maybe that's just because I was still optimistic at that point) as it features a young Peter and his friend, Nibs (Lewis MacDougall), at an Orphanage in England during World War II as they cook up schemes and hatch plans to try and allude the tyrannical nun that keeps them on a strict schedule (and diet). These early moments that allow us to get to know Miller's Peter are both informative and interesting without trying too hard. It is once we enter Neverland that the sets and the special effects get bigger and bolder colored as if to try and hide the lack of character development. It's almost as if the bigness of the production was overwhelming to everyone, including Wright, to the point they didn't feel they could even manage all of the moving parts and so what we have is a motion picture of talking heads that tell instead of show and don't allow the film to infiltrate the smaller interactions thus making this $150 million production feel cheap. What is worse than the cheapness though may be the transparency of the majority of the performances. We'll start with Jackman's Blackbeard given the most likable actor on the planet is certainly giving it his all. Luckily, Jackman at least gets to play the pirate as ruthless (he's kicking kids off a plank half an hour in), but again the character overall is such an archetype and conduit for all this exposition that Jackman never really has the opportunity to dig in. Hedlund comes out the worst of everyone as he's so desperately trying a Harrison Ford impression that never works it's cringe-worthy and for all the talk around Mara's casting she barely registers so there seems no point in making a fuss of it.
I could be wrong, though, and I could be wrongfully accusing both Wright and Fuchs for shortcomings that are not of their doing, but studio meddling in the wake of the films three month delay. There are certainly signs that there were a significant amount of notes being handed down and edits being made given the lack of cohesion from scene to scene, but even in the tone one can see the strides being made to cover up the darker tale I'd like to assume Wright was going for. Wright is known for his rather bold and unique approach to things whether that be in his ability to apply different styles to different genres or simply in the filmmaking techniques he uses-there is always a level of inventiveness that is unavoidable to his work. This can be glimpsed in the early portions of “Pan” when the pirates of Bishop's (Nonso Anozie) ship fall through the ceilings of Peter's orphanage and pluck children out of their beds as if they were in a cirque du soleil show. It is interesting visually, it adds a fresh layer to the proceedings and it is both intensely creepy and energizing at the same time. In short, it works to accomplish the kind of tone the film seems intent to carry out. Even as we venture into Neverland and Jackman's Blackbeard is introduced to us via Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" there is an understanding that something specific was being sought here. While we once again hear popular music thrown into this fantastical setting a few scenes later with the Ramones’ "Blitzkrieg Bop," there is no use of the technique throughout the remainder of the film making these two short instances something of a question mark. The real question though is why does a studio give a director like Wright the Peter Pan origin story with such a massive budget only to reduce what his vision was to the blandest sampling of origin stories ever told? Much like “Fantastic Four” earlier this year I can only imagine we would have seen a much better or at least more interesting film in “Pan” had the powers that be not so actively tried to contain their product to a box, but rather let the creative forces that they've enlisted actually breathe.