Pan is a film that purports to tell the story of Peter Pan before he became Peter Pan. Why would a film want to do that, exactly? Well, other than hazy ideas about name recognition and franchise potential, I’m still not sure. Watching Pan flail around for an answer is decently entertaining, but the film never quite solves the riddle of why Peter before he became Peter Pan is a story worth knowing. In the absence of any real reason for being, it’s a blend of bizarre narrative choices, inspired production design, and derivative bits from every “chosen one” blockbuster ever made.
Directed by Joe Wright (Hanna, Anna Karenina), Pan opens with a narrator telling us that “sometimes to understand how something ends, you have to know how it began.” Watch any of Pan’s trailers, and you’ll hear a woman singing “this is not the end of this, this is the beginning.” Jeez, defensive much? Yet, for a movie that seems to spend so much energy trying to justify its own existence and/or franchise potential (This is just the beginning! There are at least three more movies after this!), it makes some strange choices right off the bat. After promising us that this story is crucial to understanding the Peter Pan story we already know, it takes us to WWII England during the Blitz, three years after Peter Pan writer J.M. Barrie’s death.
It’s there we meet Peter, a cockney orphan played by Levi Miller, whose over-earnest acting makes you miss the days when Peter was played by an adult woman. “Oi, Nibsy, oo guffed one?” exclaims Peter to his farting best friend, Nibs. Peter clashes with the head flying nun, a whisker-chinned, snaggle-toothed sadist made entirely of camp (played by Kathy Burke) who angrily tells Peter “You’re not special, Peter!” It’s the kind of line that could make Tyler Perry wonder, “Gee, isn’t this a little on the nose?”
Peter is eventually abducted and taken to Neverland through circumstances that, to its credit, Pan doesn’t really attempt to explain. (For a while I thought it might be an elaborate dream sequence.) He glides to a space island on a flying pirate ship, through attacks by German Messerschmitts, past clouds made of water teeming with flying fish and crocodiles. Pan is at it’s most beautiful when it’s making the least sense, at least partly capturing Barrie’s flair for whimsy. Whatever it may lack, Pan’s got panache.
Yet for some reason, Pan insists on bringing us back to the familiar, sometimes in cringeworthy ways. When he gets to Neverland, Peter finds himself in a massive quarry (shades of Fury Road) run by an evil, flamboyant pirate named Blackbeard, played by Hugh Jackman. Blackbeard has a plan to steal all of the world’s fairy dust and chew all of its scenery. I actually love Hugh Jackman as a flamboyant, feather-bedecked pirate with dual double-barreled dueling pistols, but I can’t make heads or tails of Pan‘s decision to introduce him with a scene where the quarry workers are chanting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
Keep in mind, this movie isn’t otherwise a musical. Yet there it is, a weird show-tune-style number, right in the middle of it. I guess you could come up with a few free associations to explain why they might’ve chosen the most famous grunge song to introduce their flamboyant sky pirate — Nevermind, Never Neverland… Maybe it was simple word association. Or maybe a song from 1991 in a movie set in 1940 that’s a prequel to a play that premiered in 1904 bolsters the “time has no meaning” leitmotif. Whatever the case, there’s no thematic connection strong enough to make me want to watch an army of dirty-faced child extras chant “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido” as a Mola Ram-style incantation. Please, please no.
Later, during a weirdly campy public-execution sequence, Blackbeard leads the crowd in “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Hey. Ho. Dear God no. Most of Pan was easy to sit through even when it wasn’t making much sense, but I watched both musical sequences from behind my own outstretched fingers with my knees bunched up in front of me.
Anyway, Blackbeard’s plan to mine all of the island’s unobtanium, er, fairy dust, is being thwarted by a civilization of back-to-the-land natives led by Tiger-Lily (Rooney Mara), who thinks Peter just might be their chosen leader, as an ancient prophecy foretold. There’s even memories that live in the land and a weird flying blue creature that Peter learns to ride. Hmm, where have we heard this before? It’s hard to feel “whimsy” while thinking “Avatar.”
It’s not just a problem of unoriginality, there are also issues of structure. Pan never quite explains what fairy dust does, why Blackbeard wants it, or why the natives need to protect it. To say nothing of the inherent tediousness of a story where Peter repeatedly cries and whines and swears that he’s not the chosen one, all while the audience thinks, Dude, you’re Peter Pan. Of course you’re the damned chosen one.
Did I mention that James Hook is also there, played by Garret Hedlund, in a Foghorn Leghorn-doing-a-John-Wayne-impression accent? From the first moment you hear it you can’t believe he’s going to do it the entire movie. Hook and Pan are sidekicks here, though they do keep making jokes that someday they might not be friends. You know, as one does (?). Entire scenes seem devoted to the suspense of wondering when Hook is going to get his hand bitten off by a croc. It’s an odd way to approach a story, working off the assumption that the crowd is just dying to see the parts they already know.
Speaking of, I always understood Captain Hook (a vain pirate in a wig pursued by a ticking crocodile), the antagonist of a boy who wouldn’t grow up, to be a kind of metaphor for mortality. The hero could always defeat him by thinking happy thoughts. Basically, the idea being that we can all be immortal so long as we retain our youthful capacity for magical thinking. Such a sweet thought, and brilliant, as it essentially convinces you to suspend all disbelief and go along with this fairy tale by promising immortality.
Pan, the prequel to that story, the story we supposedly need to know in order to understand it, is about… a boy who saves a native tribe from pirates? A boy who escapes an orphanage? A boy who learns that he is special (because of an ancient fairy prophecy) and proves an evil nun wrong?
There are seeds of ideas in Pan, but they never quite germinate. It’s hard to tell if that’s because Pan‘s makers didn’t know what it was supposed to be about, or if they were just planning to get to an actual theme in some future installment. Unfortunately we have to care about Peter in order to want to wait around for those, and turning him into a pre-pubescent Jake Sully or a Muppet Baby Neo doesn’t quite cut it. And it certainly doesn’t feel like Peter Pan.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.