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Non-Review Review: Pan

There is something delightfully off-kilter about Pan, to the point that it seems almost surprising that it got made.

After all, Peter Pan doesn’t seem to need an origin story. All the core ingredients are included in the original stories that J.M. Barrie wrote at the start of the twentieth century, allowing generations of other writers to improvise and elaborate around a rather robust blueprint. Steven Spielberg hit on an interesting idea in theory (if not necessarily execution) in Hook, producing a sequel imagining what might happen if the boy who never grew up… actually grew up. However, there does not seem to be an equivalently interesting hook into a prequel story.

Don't be so harsh, Blackbeard...

Don’t be so harsh, Blackbeard…

Indeed, there is very little in Pan that connects it to its source material, beyond a few overlapping names and sly in-jokes. Captain Blackbeard meditates on Neverland as the realm of death, alluding to the historical context of the stories, but the film is absolutely fascinated by the concept of death in Neverland. James Hook might be taunted with a “tick tock” and dangle his hand in crocodile-infested waters, but the film has very little interesting to say about his relationship with Peter Pan beyond falling back on the trope of suggesting that they were once friends.

However, there is something fascinating about the execution of Pan. Even if the script doesn’t hold together, and the film often seems like two-hours of punk pop candy floss, there is an endearingly gonzo quality to the film that makes its complete refusal to work all the more interesting.

Sheets to the wind...

Sheets to the wind…

Pan is a movie that seems destined to spark conversations among film enthusiasts. Certain, it is a film that is very hard to describe in any real depth without giving the impression that somebody spiked your popcorn. What exactly is the most surreal and bizarre moment in the film? What exactly happened during the production process? How much of the craziness is routed in Jason Fuchs’ screenplay as opposed to Joe Wright’s direction? How much quirk is too much quirk, when layoured upon a very formulaic story.

Even in hindsight, it is impossible to identify the strangest idea or image in Pan. Is it the idea of crooked nuns selling orphans to bungy-jumping space pirates for what look like gold doubloons? Is it the fact that the child slaves working in Blackbeard’s mines creepily drone Nirvana and The Ramones as a prelude to spectacle? Is it the use of magic pixie dust (“pixum”) as a drug prepared in a manner similar to heroin or crack cocaine? Is it the detail that the natives of Neverland spontaneous burst into puffs of coloured smoke when they are hit with anything?

Native problems...

Native problems…

More than that, it is difficult to figure which of the movie’s central performances is most delightfully off-beat. Hugh Jackman sets the tone for the rest of the ensemble by playing Blackbeard as a character who seems to bound around Neverland, one moment away from an improvised song-and-dance number. However, the other actors all take their cue from there. Perhaps as a nod to the casting of Jack Charles as the tribal elder, Rooney Mara affects a strange British/Austrian accent as Tiger Lilly.

And then there is Garrett Hedlund as (soon to be Captain) James Hook. Although the film can’t resist countless nods to his future as the hook-handed commander of the Jolly Rodger, Hedlund largely steers clear of pirate clichés. Instead, Hedlund pitches James Hook as a weird cinematic hybrid; Indiana Jones by way of Daniel Plainview. Hedlund chows down on the scenery in a performance that would devour any other movie whole. However, Pan matches Hedlund bite-for-bite, offering more candy floss than the actor could swallow.

It all coms to a head(ress)...

It all coms to a head(ress)…

In some respects, Wright films Pan as something akin to a live-action cartoon. There are lots of stunts and setpieces, with the film seguing into no less than two extended animated exposition sequences. A fight to the death takes place on trampolines, and pirates launch daring raids with bungee chords. At one stage, an off-screen collision is suggested by allowing the wooden mast of a flying pirate ship to comically penetrate a wall composed entirely of concrete. It is all very silly, but it is very silly in a highly energetic and giddy way.

Of course, that giddiness can become exhausting rather than exhilarating, but there is definite ambition at work here. The visual style and dynamism is enough to elevate Pan from a failure to a curiousity, a film that will likely generate some discussion and debate in later years. It is too much to suggest that Pan will ever amass a cult following, but the film does throw together enough incongruous and distinctive imagery to suggest that it will lodge in the minds of some film fans.

A hook into the character...

A hook into the character…

These are the most intriguing and interesting aspects of Pan. Looking at many of the choices made by director Joe Wright and his cast, Pan seems like a very daring piece of work. It certainly looks and feels unlike any other large-scale studio franchise film. In terms of production, it very much reflects the same attitude that allowed George Miller to make something as unique and eccentric as Mad Max: Fury Road. It never coheres to the same extent as Fury Road, but Pan is an oddity in terms of tone and style.

The real problem with Pan is in the story itself, and how screenwriter Jason Fuchs and director Joe Wright choose to tell it. While Fury Road told a very simple story, it was a clever and insightful exploration of common genre tropes. In contrast, all the memorable visuals and stylistic choices in Pan are offered in service of an incredibly generic script. While nobody was clamouring for a prequel to Peter Pan, this film opts to tell the most generic and predictable story that could be told using that material.

The inmost cave...

The inmost cave…

Peter is reimagined as a “chosen one” foretold by “prophecy” and marked by the necklace that his mother left with him. Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is hugely influential and can be skilfully applied to just about any story imaginable, but Pan fails to make a convincing case for its application to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Why does Peter need to be searching for his mother? Why does the film have to provide the most banal explanation for the surname “Pan” imaginable?

(It gets slightly more problematic when Pan decides to throw in a the conflict between the “Natives” and the “Pirates.” It is an obvious colonial metaphor, reinforced by the casting of Jack Charles as the leader of the tribe and by the casting of Na Tae-joo as the “tribe’s greatest warrior.” However, this only draws attention to the casting of Rooney Mara as the most prominent “native” character and the fact that Pan is essentially the story of an indigenous population waiting for saviour who was raised in England. Even allowing for Peter’s parentage, it is awkward.)

"It's a pirate's life for me..."

“It’s a pirate’s life for me…”

In terms of basic storytelling, it draws attention to one of the most frequent (and occasionally misguided) criticisms of prequels as a type of film. If Peter is destined to be a hero, and knows that he will be a hero, why should the audience care? If the lead character has no agency or impact on the story being told, how can viewers invest in that world? Pan draws attention to the film’s status as a prequel, pointing out that the audience already knows how this is going to end. Including the prophecy element means that characters know as well.

Of course, it is possible to generate tension between audience (and character) expectations and the story itself. It is possible to weaponise an audience’s familiarity with a story, using that knowledge to wrong-foot them and catch them off-guard. At the very least, the inevitability of the story’s outcome can render it as tragedy. Unfortunately, Pan is not that clever. The film hits just about every note that the audience might expect. It is predictable and trite, checking items off the Joseph Campbell flowchart.

Enemy mine...

Enemy mine…

There is also something slightly frustrating about the film’s status as a prequel to Peter Pan. The most obvious tensions between Pan and Peter Pan are left unresolved by the end of the story. This might have been a clever way to close out the film by upsetting audience expectations, but it ultimately feels like laziness; it feels like the script to Pan simply cannot be bothered connecting back to its source material in the end, leaving the prequel more than a little dramatically unsatisfying.

That is the real problem with Pan, for all its distinctive and memorable visuals. There is nothing going on in the script to justify all of these pyrotechnics. Pan feels like a candy floss coat applied to a misshapen wire frame; the results could have been compelling, but are instead merely a curiosity.

6 Responses

  1. Do we need a prequel for every amazing classic tale? Nice review.

    • Well, this one is following on the heels of Peter and the Starcatcher, a rather successful Broadway play.

      • I did not know that. Thanks Ed!

        I wonder if this is the “Oz: The Great and Powerful” to Starcatcher’s “Wicked”, so to speak?

    • More than that, do we need a prequel that is so generic and conventional? I like the Campbell structure, but do we need to impose it on every piece of popular culture?

  2. Just horrible in every way. Incredibly the movie opens with crowds of people singing Guns n Roses tunes! That’s as far as I got. Excruciating.

    • I didn’t mind the music stuff so much. Give me memorable camp any day. It was just… so boring and trite.

      (Yes, I prefer Batman and Robin to Batman Forever. Don’t judge me.)

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