Whether it’s Disney themselves or competitors taking full advantage of the source material residing in the public domain (as is the case here), live-action adaptions of stories that have previously been realised as animated Disney classics have found a lot of success in the recent years. While they’ve all had little twists to differentiate themselves and feel a little more adult, some have had more success justifying the transition creatively. Maleficent, for example, was a fun twist designed to give sympathy to a purely evil antagonist, while Alice In Wonderland tried lazily to ramp up the scale by forcing Lord of the Rings-lite fantasy tropes down the audience’s throat.
With Pan, writer Jason Fuchs (Ice Age: Continental Drift) and director Joe Wright (Atonement) decide to give its iconic character a Batman Begins-like prequel, giving us an origin story and setting up the world Peter Pan will later become a part of, sacrificing good portions of its imagination and whimsy to make room for swashbuckling adventure. While the enthusiasm is evident and the filmmakers and cast are clearly having fun, they fail to capitalise on the Neverland setting, leaving the excitement of the world to speak for itself while the film busies itself with its cookie-cutter adventure. Pan comes close to being a success, but misses almost every mark by just a hair, resulting in a very forgettable film despite the effort that clearly went into it.
While on the whole Pan is held back by a lack of creativity, the epic feel the film goes for is achieved quite well through nifty tinkering of the Peter Pan mythology into a familiar ‘hero’s journey’ structure. Peter (Levi Miller) is kidnapped alongside his fellow orphans by a crew of pirates on a flying sailing ship and whisked away to Neverland to be slaves of the tyrannical pirate overlord Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Forced to mine a magical crystal substance called pixem (a fun little reimagining of fairy dust), Peter soon gets himself in trouble and made an example of, prompting him to accidently fly for a brief time, casting him as the one destined to eventually kill Blackbeard. With the help of James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and Mr. Smee (Adeel Akhtar) he escapes and sets off for an adventure across Neverland while being pursued by Blackbeard and his pirate army.
Arguably Pan’s biggest hook (sorry) is in the casting of Jackman as its villain. The unfairly talented and universally adored Aussie has featured front and centre on all of Pan’s marketing, giving the film the Jackman stamp of approval for all curious movie-goers. The overly theatrical style of the film and bombastic design of the character are perfect for an actor with Jackman’s stage presence, and he is clearly having a blast whenever he is on screen. Tragically though, there just isn’t enough material to make Blackbeard in anyway memorable beyond the admittedly impressive task of making Jackman seem a little less handsome. Aside from one quiet moment between Blackbeard and Pan that stood out, there really isn’t much to the character.
Given how stock standard Blackbeard ultimately is, the choice to use him as the villain instead of Peter Pan’s much more interesting pirate antagonist Captain Hook seems like a huge misstep. Pan very clearly has its eyes on sequels for Hook to take the mantle, leaving him here to be given a young Harrison Ford makeover and serve as a roguish guide for Peter. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s a gamble that fails monstrously, not only robbing the film of a great antagonist, but burdening it with a distracting and transparent attempt to make Pan a more traditional adventure film. Hedlund’s performance is not overly terrible, but it’s nigh impossible to observe any successful character work underneath his overbearing accent. Rather than sell Pan as the epic it wants to be, Hook solidifies the cheap children’s production feel that keeps creeping in to the film.
While the numerous missed opportunities with the core cast do some serious damage to the film’s tone, it’s the surprisingly uninventive adventure that really stops Pan from taking off. An early sequence with a flying Jolly Roger and some British fighter planes, as well as the the final battle inside a giant geode, make for entertaining set-pieces, but everything between is disappointingly unremarkable. In a world with fairies, mermaids, pirates and Indians (we’ll leave the discussion of Rooney Mara’s whitewashed Tiger Lilly for another time), Pan just doesn’t have the magic it should. Our first glimpse of Neverland is of a brown and dry quarry, and while we at least see a tad more colour (though not much) in later locales, the only one that’s the least bit interesting is the aforementioned final battleground.
As for Pan himself, for such a young actor, Miller does well to balance both the wacky and dramatic aspects of the character. As with the rest of the cast, there aren’t that many opportunities for him to stand out, but Peter does prove to be the only character with any substantial growth and Miller is a perfect fit for his journey from orphanage troublemaker to Neverland superhero.
The fact that it’s Peter that stands out in the film, despite how simple a character he is, is indicative of how much more focused the film is on a younger (and more forgiving) audience. There really isn’t a whole lot aimed at the adults in this film (aside from strange Moulin Rogue-esque anachronistic use of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), so aside from promises of a more epic adventure in future instalments, older viewers will likely be checking their watches while the kids enjoy Pan’s fantastical concepts. Though, given the film doesn’t really do much to explore them and hopes the ideas of the source material will stand on their own, there is a chance even younger viewers could find themselves disinterested.
And yet, with all the problems and poor choices that plague Pan, there is still some charm that comes through from the cheer enthusiasm you can see in the cast. While the result is ultimately disappointing, it’s clear it comes from an honest place and everyone had fun piecing it together. While it’s uncertain if we’ll see sequels, there is enough set up here that I’d be interested in exploring if they can find a way for the story itself to be something worth getting invested in.
A commendable attempt at bringing a new perspective to its titular character, Pan ultimately fails to impress, but still has enough under the hood to make it a worthwhile outing if you’re looking for something gentle and kid-friendly.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10