So, last night I took the kids to see Pan. The buzz for this film (negative buzz, at that) has been insane since the film was announced. Between the feeling of ‘fairy tale live action fatigue’ and the issue with ‘white washing’ and that terrifying (and quite alarming) Instagram post by Hugh Jackman to the idea of an origin story to a beloved classic to the feeling that Joe Wright is a gimmick of a director (a sentiment I do not share, but have heard many times), it felt like Pan was plagued with ill intent.
In other words; no one was going to like this.
And, much as I suspected, the initial reviews were quite savage, with critics armed with knives they’ve been holding for half a year tearing into this flick like it was the worst film ever made (and using puns that, like, made them sound seven years old). I don’t care much for critics, to be honest. Following the movie/Oscar game for quite a few years now, it’s become evident that once you get ‘paid’ to write a review, you start coming at things from a different perspective. You start to suck.
Sitting in the theater last night, my little ones spread out around me in those really cool recliner seats that literally made me feel like I was watching this in bed, I started to wonder just why this was getting panned so severely. It is flawed, I won’t deny that…but it’s also really good. Like, it has so much going for it, which is also a tinge of a flaw (‘too many ideas’ syndrome) and yet those things it has going for it are so intriguing that even in the moments were I felt like someone probably should have yelled, “EDIT!”, I’m really glad they didn’t.
I’d rather take a messy film with too many ideas than an elegant film with none at all.
Joe Wright’s Pan sets out to tell the story of how orphan Peter Pan became the beloved boy who never grew up. These origin stories are popular (VERY popular), but the story of Peter Pan in its original form is so iconic and so interesting that I’ve never even conceptualized his origin. But, I can also see why Wright wanted to go in this direction. The Disney film from 1953 is classic, beloved and perfect. The 2003 live-action adaptation is considered by so many to be a perfect adaptation that even attempting to take that on would seem silly, especially this soon. So, we have this, a completely fabricated and original story conceived from the beloved classic but meant to stand on its own. In my eyes, it does.
Peter, living in a London orphanage during war time, is like most orphans; seemingly delusional. Confident that his mother will come back for him, and rebellious against the disgustingly savage nuns that run the place, Peter seems like a troublemaker, but a very likable one (at least to the audience). Before long, Peter discovers that something strange is happening to the boys in the orphanage. It appears that the nuns are selling them, and it is revealed (during a visually stunning sequence) that they are being sold to pirates in a flying ship…and ship that flies straight to a magical (and visually dazzling) place called Neverland.
In case you haven’t guessed it yet, Pan is, above all other things, a visual marvel.
Once in Neverland, Peter finds himself working the mines alongside thousands of orphans looking for pixie-dust for the ruler of Neverland, Blackbeard. Blackbeard’s only goal is to live forever, and the pixie-dust (which he inhales like a drug) preserves his youth. After a series of events sends Peter to the plank, it is discovered the Peter can…fly…and this sends Blackbeard into a bit of a frenzy because, legend has it, that a human/fairy hybrid is destined to come to Neverland to lead an uprising against him.
Throw in fellow miner, James Hook, and a group of ‘savages’ led by Steam-punk Princess Tiger Lily and you have the makings of a grand adventure.
So…where does Pan go wrong?
Let’s just address the Rooney Mara casting first and foremost since pretty much ALL of the negative notions pre-release were wrapped up in the fact that they cast a Caucasian in the role iconically portrayed by a Native American. I agree with the outrage over this. There was absolutely NO reason to cast Mara. She doesn’t add anything to this role that no one else could have (in fact, she doesn’t do anything of note, at all) and so casting her was foolish, truly foolish, and merely a way for Wright to work with an actress he probably had a desire to work with. The fact that she’s the only white person in her ‘tribe’ is also rather insulting. Like, every other member is of another ethnicity and so…their ruler has to be white? No. I get it and I am not happy about it.
Honestly though, other than Garrett Hedlund’s ridiculous performance (think a cartoon version of Indiana Jones on hallucinogens), I don’t really see any other flaws here.
The rest of the cast is really well suited to the material. Even Hugh Jackman, bizarre makeup and wig included, works. His ham is appropriately timed, giving a larger than life persona with deep-rooted emotions that surface at the right times in the best ways (his initial conversation with Peter, about his destiny, is remarkably played). Levi Miller is such a find. He was a pitch-perfect Peter, filled with childlike innocence tampered by a hard life and a confused future and his boyish charm was so well used. It doesn’t hurt that he’s adorable and has this infectious smile that just makes you happy to watch him have fun with this. The world Wright creates is so rich, visually, and has so many layers. The richness of the skylines, the lush forests, the intricate machinery to the ‘evil’ places (even war-torn London is such a work of art) all the way down to the secret Fairy Kingdom, which is so magical in its simplicity. I even take no issue with the gaudy, colorful attire worn by everyone from the pirates to the savages, because they feel so fun and spirited.
It’s funny because, given Wright’s elegantly conceived previous films (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina mostly), I would have expected something more refined in nature from Wright. In fact, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella carries with it the properness and fantastical elegance that feels more in line with how Wright has constructed his epics in the past. Instead, there is almost a wild abandon that flourishes in Pan, a film that feels like a product of Baz Lurhmann’s School of MTV Filmmaking with an ode to the swashbuckling classics of the past in toe. It works though, for this tale, and is something that Wright effortlessly pulls off.
I’ll tell you, it seems odd on paper, but the choral production of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ actually gave me LIFE last night.
But all of this visual grandeur means nothing unless the story is good.
Wright’s take on Peter Pan involves an evil pirate, Blackbeard, set on domination over a magical land, in love with a human who he keeps prisoner. That human, Mary, falls in love with a Fairy Prince who, in an attempt to save her from the evil pirate, takes human form. Fairies can only live a single day in this form, and so with their few hours together, they conceive a child, Peter, who the savages help Mary hide in the human world until the time is right for him to return and save Neverland from Blackbeard. The fairies are secluded in a secret place so that Blackbeard cannot harm him in Peter’s absence. An obvious allegory about Jesus Christ and the battle over God’s creation as well as a deeply conceptualized exploration of the afterlife, Wright’s story is so rich with subtext. Not every note comes together right, true, but the notes are there and so many of them are played beautifully. The story of Peter Pan has always been a favorite of mine, and while Pan is perfect, I’m very satisfied with the result.
A few things on my mind, though…there are two ‘notes’ that I really wanted to be played longer. First, those who were stunned by the moment in the trailer showing the mermaids and the croc…what you saw in the trailer is what you get in the film. The mermaids, played by model turned actress turned star of a viral interview video Cara Delevigne, are only in the film for about 30 seconds. They say nothing and only swim Peter to the surface and then that’s it. They do this mere moments after we see the iconic croc lunge from the water (such a MOMENT) and then drag Peter to the watery depths. This scene is so stunning and yet far too short.
Next, there’s the Hook/Peter rivalry. If you’re like me, you’d assume that this origin is going to explore how they became enemies. It’s hinted at a few times and yet, this never takes fruition. By the film’s end (spoiler, I guess), they are still friends. Now, this normally wouldn’t bother me, but with all the negative press this has gotten there is absolutely no way there will be a sequel to this and so we’re never going to get that blossoming feud, and I want it (preferably not with Hedlund in the role, and then again, maybe he’ll grow on me).
So there you have it. Possibly the only positive review you’ll read for this film, and yet I don’t regret a single word.