Why is it so hard to make a good Peter Pan film?
By my count, there's one great film version of the story, and it's not the Disney version. Maybe the problem can be best summed up by noting that when PJ Hogan released his version in 2003, there were several critics who clutched their pearls and freaked out and acted nervous about the way the story's subtext threatened to become text. Why? Because he told the story the right way, and when you tell the story the right way, it is crystal clear that “Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up” is about that transitional moment when we cross from being children into something else. It is about loss of innocence and the fear of that loss. It is about a refusal to allow adulthood to gain any foothold, and what it is one would have to deny to stay a child forever. There is a staggering amount of meat on the bone if you really want to dig into it, which is why I don't understand making a version of Peter Pan that utterly ignores everything that defines Peter Pan in the first place.
While Joe Wright is a very talented filmmaker who has made a number of very good movies, he has been flattened by the weight of this particular burden, resulting in a very pretty and largely ill-considered prequel/reboot that adds nothing of note to the overall mythology. If anything, it demonstrates a near total lack of understanding of the character and the story, or worse, an arrogance in thinking that they've somehow outsmarted Barrie.
I've spent much of the last few days pondering which is worse: Wright's “Pan” or Spielberg's “Hook.” They're both terrible films that bungle aspects of the Pan story, but I honestly think Wright's film may be the greater overall offense. Jason Fuchs is the credited writer here, and the script is a big part of what doesn't work. Like Tim Burton's rancid “Alice In Wonderland,” this movie makes the mistake of trying to graft the Chosen One structure onto Peter Pan, which has never been about that in any way. It also refigures his origin, something that needed no further explanation. Not every “what if?” question that you ask is a good “what if?” question. While I don't think much of the finished film, at least “Hook” started from a pretty good question: what if Peter Pan finally grew up? I remember talking to Nick Castle, the original screenwriter of the film, well before it had become a big giant Steven Spielberg movie. Castle originally envisioned it as something smaller, more driven by that sad single question, and I can imagine how you could make a really lovely film out of that premise.
But there is no equally interesting or worthwhile question at the heart of “Pan.” Instead, the question here appeared to be: what if we came up with a huge labored backstory for Peter Pan so we could make at least three movies out of it? I do not understand the world of this movie, and neither does director Joe Wright. You're dead in the water if your fantasy world doesn't feel real, and when you've got something as well-defined as Neverland, it seems hard to screw up. That makes it even more impressive to see how much they miss the mark here. It starts with the first moment where they arrive in Neverland, when the flying pirate ship that abducted Peter (Levi Miller) flies him and the other boys to the fairy crystal mines where there are hundreds of orphans from around the world, all pressed into service by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). The scene is done as a musical number, with all the extras singing the song together. Now, keep in mind, the film takes place during WWII. That is carefully established in elaborate scenes at the start of the film. The song that the entire small army of extras sings together is Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the scene builds and builds as Blackbeard is introduced for the first time, and by the time he joins the chant, “Here we are now, entertain us,” he does Russian kicks and hypes up the crowd even more. That is a real thing that happens in the film. A few scenes later, there's a few bars of another musical number, this time set to “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones.
AND THEN NO ONE EVER SINGS AGAIN, AND THERE IS NO MENTION OF THE SINGING, AND THERE IS NO EXPLANATION FOR THE MODERN SONGS IN A WWII FILM THAT ISN'T, BY ANY OTHER STANDARDS, A MUSICAL.
I'd love to hear the conversations that led to the final form of this idea. Was “Pan” originally a full-length “Moulin Rouge”-style musical with modern songs used to illuminate the characters? Were there more of these scenes? And why is the beginning of the film set during WWII? What do we gain from seeing those few minutes set in that period, aside from scratching some odd fetish itch of Wright's?
Short version of what the film is about: Blackbeard mines crystals made of fairy dust using an army of slaves so he can grind the crystals up, snort them through a weird gas mask, and stay young forever. There is an ancient prophecy about a boy who can fly named Pan who will kill Blackbeard, which means there was an ancient prophecy predicting Blackbeard, which makes you wonder why they didn't do something to prepare for him in the first place. Pan flies, then worries for most of the movie that he won't be able to fly again, and then he flies. The end.
And what does that have to do with the Peter Pan that we already know? How does this story inform or illuminate that character? Nothing. And it doesn't. For one thing, making this a movie about Peter hunting down the story of his birth mother and learning how much she loved him seems to directly contradict who Peter Pan is. If he has a strong connection to his mommy and she loved him very much, then why does he become the boy who never grows up? The entire point of Barrie's character was that he felt unloved and unwanted, and that's how he connects to each of the new Lost Boys. That's what made the Darling children different. Now Peter's got this connection to the world, so why would he become Peter Pan at all? There is a lot of legwork spent pushing pieces into place. For example, one of the slaves working in the crystal mine with Peter is a drawling American named Hook (Garrett Hedlund), and one of Blackbeard's lackeys who ends up befriending Hook and Peter is Sam Smielgel (Adeel Akhtar), who they end up calling Smee. So knowing that, you can probably guess that the film eventually pits Peter against Hook, breaking their friendship in a way that makes their eventual rivalry sort of heartbreaking. Right?
Nope. In fact, by the end of this film, Peter and Hook are the best of friends, and they basically say, “I'm sure NOTHING could ever come between us!” as the closing credits begin. It's an insane place to end a movie, and it is the grossest kind of commercial hubris. Stop making movies that exist only to advertise another movie that you haven't even made yet. That is a terrible, terrible, terrible storytelling model. It is offensive because it's like you're putting your hand in my pocket even as I hand you a $20 bill. This movie goes through the motions, but there's no joy to the storytelling or the story being told, and there's nothing in this film that would make me crave another adventure with the same characters.
There are some huge problems with Barrie's book if you're telling the story now and you're telling it faithfully. There is no way to accurately handle Tiger Lily. Barrie wasn't writing about authentic Native American characters. Instead, Tiger Lily and her father, Great Big Little Panther, are exaggerations, portrayed the way a ten year old boy from England might picture Native Americans. They aren't just stereotypes; they are pure archetype, removed completely from reality. Horrifyingly, they are members of the Piccaninny tribe in Barrie's book, and since that is a confusingly charged word used in that context, you can't really portray Tiger Lily as she is in the book. Disney's version is wildly racist, but probably not far off from what Barrie intended. In this film, Tiger Lily and her people are simply Neverland natives, and they're an appropriately-balanced mix of various races, but it still won't work to satisfy anyone. It's simply one of those story elements that has long since outlived its place in the story, and simply casting Rooney Mara in a thinly-written “girl” role isn't a fix for something as confoundingly difficult as how to fix that character.
I'm not sure what to make of the two directors of photography. I have a feeling there's a story about the making of this film that might explain some of my issues with what a weird Frankenstein's monster it is. John Mathieson and Seamus McGarvey, working with production designer Aline Bonetto, have given the film a bright and unruly palette, and Wright is a smart visual filmmaker. There are signs here of a film fantasy that might have worked, but Wright's good work is smothered under all of the mechanical reverse engineering going on in the film. Hey, look, there's a crocodile! And Hook may not be scared of it yet, but he will be soon! Get it?! GET IT?!? Hey, check out all these fairies! Here's one named Tinker Bell just meeting Peter for the first time! I WONDER IF THAT WILL BE IMPORTANT LATER!? GET IT?!?! The cast tries hard, and I don't blame any of them for the insane choices made about the story. Hugh Jackman is stranded by the very strange character they've given him to play, and Levi Miller isn't given any character at all. Garrett Hedlund gives the most engaging performance in the movie, but I'm not sure what movie he's in. It's not this one, and in terms of tone, every time Hedlund shows up, it feels like someone's spliced in an entirely different picture. This may be the year's most synthetic blockbuster candidate, a real shame considering the level of talent involved. With no clear purpose in telling the story and no real focus in the actual storytelling, “Pan” never gets off the ground.
“Pan” is in theaters Friday.