Every legend has a beginning.
In London, during World War II, a young orphan named Peter (Levi Miller) is briskly swept up by pirates and taken to Neverland — a colorful island in the sky. Under the command of the charming, but ruthless Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), Peter and the other kidnapped children are forced to mine for Neverland’s most precious energy source, Pixum (a type of pixie dust), which keeps Blackbeard youthful.
After learning that he can fly, Peter escapes with fellow detainee James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and embarks on a quest to find his mother (Amanda Seyfried), who, according to legend, fell in love with a fairy prince. This pursuit leads Peter to a feared Native tribe where he meets Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and finds himself at the center of a prophecy projected to bring peace back to Neverland.
Since making his first feature Pride & Prejudice in 2005, director Joe Wright has rapidly developed himself as a filmmaker to watch out for. Following his debut with the melancholy of Atonement (2007), the contemplation of The Soloist (2009), the fairy-tale gone berserk action of Hanna (2011) and his daring, bold take on Anna Karenina (2012) — which takes place on a literal stage — Wright felt like an inspired choice to tackle the new Peter Pan project. Thus I approached Pan with great enthusiasm and in some regard, I wasn’t disappointed.
Strictly on a design level, Pan steps away from the traditional Peter Pan aesthetic that most have come to recognize — notably the celebrated 1953 Disney version — with this new flick coming across as an amalgamation of Cirque du Soleil colors and acrobatics with a Pirates of the Caribbean style adventure. Nevertheless, Pan is bursting with gorgeous, vivid eye-candy, shot by two of the U.K.’s finest cinematographers, John Mathieson, Gladiator (2000) and Seamus McGarvey — a consistent collaborator of Wright’s, having worked with him from Atonement (2007) onwards. What’s more, the film has been wonderfully rendered in 3D with plenty of depth and fun reach-out gags — such as a chicken laying an egg in space for instance — making the flick an easy recommend for those who enjoy such effects.
The characters are all well realized, with the exception of James Hook, given that Garrett Hedlund, TRON: Legacy (2010), portrays the guy as though he’s acting on a pantomime stage — loud, thick American accent and big gestures — perhaps that’s the point and he’s playing it strictly for the kids, but it does jar against the slightly more grounded performances of newcomer Levi Miller who portrays Peter and Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), as the Native princess Tiger Lily. Moreover, I was a bit startled by the general lack of female characters for what felt like no good reason — despite a few mermaids, all portrayed by model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne, Paper Towns (2015), it’s very much a man’s world.
My main issue with Pan however, is in its somewhat derivative narrative. You see, while we didn’t need to know the backstory of J.M. Barrie’s legendary hero Peter Pan, there’s a lot of untapped potential in his origin, sadly the flick settles for the hackneyed ‘chosen one’ tale — you know, the one where a seemingly unlikely protagonist (usually male) realizes his destiny and frees a strange new world from tyranny. Think big heroics in the likes of The Matrix (1999) to the Harry Potter series (2001 – 2011), heck, even the animated Kung-Fu Panda (2008) followed this blueprint. The central problem with leaning heavily on this well-known narrative is the picture’s complete lack of surprise as Pan is essentially the exact film one would assume it to be, given its trailer and synopsis.
I say ‘essentially’ because the most surprising aspect of Pan is what it doesn’t do. Despite numerous hints and suggestions, viewers will not see Hook live up to his infamous name for example. The Lost Boys seem to be largely content and ‘found’, while Peter’s future beloved Wendy isn’t even on his radar yet. The flick’s biggest surprise, which is so left-field mind you, delivered without any real context, is when Blackbeard’s army chant out lyrics to Nirvana and then later, The Ramones; honestly, these scenes just felt odd. I’m still not sure what to make of them.
The prologue tells us that sometimes, in order to understand things we must go back to the beginning, but alas, there aren’t any great revelations here, just a straightforward fantasy adventure. There wouldn’t be much of an issue with the latter aspect, if patrons weren’t told to expect something more, as it’s ultimately not delivered; this promise does seem to shoot the film in its proverbial foot.
Despite all I’ve stated, Pan isn’t all bad, far from it to be honest. If one can get past the ‘been there, done that’ aspects, the world presented here is a joy to behold whilst the sharp pacing keeps things moving along quite swiftly. The film’s few quiet character moments — notably in its first act — even had me thinking that I was on the verge of witnessing a new modern family classic, one that could sit alongside the likes of Hugo (2011). While this feeling did eventually pass, Pan did confirm that director Joe Wright really knows how to coax out great performances from his cast.
Look, when all is said and done, Pan stands as a solid family entertainer, one that’s prone to amuse both young and old alike, even if it doesn’t really bring a great deal of originality to the fairy-tale re-imagining table. Ideal for a lazy Sunday’s distraction, Pan makes for a decent watch.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Steve Ramsie
Pan is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia