Joe Wright: Do better.
I should probably do one of those patented Rachel things and let you know right off the bat that I truly enjoyed Pan; one might not reach that conclusion whilst reading this full review, but please stick with me. It hits right in the sweet spot of my great loves: whimsy, magic, and hope. Peter Pan is a personal hero of mine: a soul who is so fascinated with life that he chooses to live it innocently forever. AND I attest that director Joe Wright is one of the bravest and most original voices in cinema today.
You see where I’m going with this: my expectations were high. So high, in fact, that when I first saw the trailer, and JOE WRIGHT appeared in blue letters across the screen, I…fell…out. And then the film was delayed. By three months, out of the busy summer season into October’s No Man’s Land; I knew not to get my hopes up, but I do what I want! Further still, the early reviews were extremely unkind, most professional movie-goers distancing themselves from the film in order to ensure no one thought they were racists. See here. And here. Cue eyeroll. It’s the Emma Stone/Aloha syndrome. And it’s a bit ridiculous, but I digress. Let’s just get on with how Pan is equal parts underwhelming and overwhelming, how it could have been more, how Joe Wright simply should have done better. But it’s still good. And fun. And for the whole family. And never, ever going to get a sequel.
Having been left on the doorstep by his mother when he was only a wee babe, Peter (Levi Miller) slaves away Oliver Twist-style in a British Catholic boys orphanage. Set during World War II, the clever young man rallies against the oppressive regime and gets into all kinds of mischief with his best friend Nibs (Lewis MacDougall). Late one night, all the boys are captured by a flying ship and spirited away to Neverland to work in Blackbeard’s (Hugh Jackman) mines. (Did that sentence come out of nowhere? Cool, because it did so in the film, as well.) Blackbeard is in search of the elusive Pixem – fairy dust in its purest form – in order to stay young forever. When Blackbeard attempts to make an example of Peter by pushing him off of his ship to his death, the young man flies and impresses fellow miner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) so much that he offers to help bust the little guy out. Peter believes his mother is somehow connected to Neverland and works with Hook to find her whereabouts; later, the pair come in contact with a rebel tribe led by Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) (sigh), and the rest is an origin story of how Peter became the Pan.
Former actor and current writer of the long-awaited Wonder Woman movie Jason Fuchs pens a script based on the beloved J.M. Barrie characters that mostly works. The story flows along nicely enough with revelations that never hit off the mark; all of the plot notes ring at the right time, and the bulk of the dialogue is both character driven and free-flowing. This is both a strength and weakness in the movie because when a line falls flat, when Peter utters a cheesy, ridiculous, out-of-character sentence, it’s cringe-worthy. The script is further peppered with many nods to the future, and that’s all well and good: Hook referring to himself as “Captain,” carrying around a hook in his hand, crocodiles, Pan and Hook butting heads, etc.; but when it happens so often, you lose the audience to constant sighs. The last beat leaves the door open for a franchise, but with the less-than-kind critical reception, and the possible box-office tanking following delay after delay, I have doubts.
Wright’s unique voice shines in Atonement, Pride & Prejudice, (to some extent) Hanna, and in his bravest and most interesting film to date: Anna Karenina. That being said, whether by design of the studio, the want to bring Barrie’s characters to the modern age, or his lack of belief in his craft, Wright’s vision of Pan falls a little flat. Most of the film is a poor representation of Baz Lurhmann, Steven Spielberg, Terry Gilliam, and Alfonso Cuaron’s A Little Princess. I expected more from Wright. That is not to say that Pan’s world is not a thing of beauty; we’ve just seen it before. The animation is done with grace and so much feeling it was one of my favorite parts of the film. Each frame explodes with crisp lines and vibrant colors, so much of it both fairytale and nightmare. Wright obviously worked with the cast, as well – each understanding the whimsical nature of the film (a point the chorus of hard-nosed critics seemed to have missed). Make no mistake: Wright does a serviceable job…I’m just so disappointed that I was not blown away. I mean, have you seen the beach scene in Atonement?!
The soundtrack, and the choice to sing two modern songs (Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and the Ramone’s “Blitzkrieg Bop”) is an odd one. I guess that’s the spitting out of old Luhrmann ideas. I expected more from Wright here as well, based on his prior works; Dario Marianelli is a frequent collaborator. Working with composer John Powell might have been a mistake. The themes fall flat, emotionless nearly throughout the film. The minimalist approach only highlights the anachronistic song selections.
Young Levi Miller is exactly the right balance of precocious and mature; never taking on the Harry Potter-wise-beyond-his-years archetype that so often plagues children’s films of late. After all, Peter Pan is the ultimate symbol of youth, the never-grow-up leader of the Lost Boys. I constantly question Hollywood’s obsessions with making Garrett Hedlund happen, and when I first noticed him in the trailer for Pan, I was skeptical to say the least. In all honesty, he shines as James Hook, brimming with leading man quality, smoldering with charm and a bit of melancholy foreshadowing the Captain Hook he will become. It gives Rachel all the feels. Yes, he is my boyfriend. Welcome to the club, Hedlund.
Much was said of the decision to cast Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily. I will not add to the media-fueled hysteria about a Caucasian actress playing a character in a fictitious tribe in a land that does not exist and therefore has no abject race, but I digress. I will, however, say that ethnicity has little to do with Mara’s failure here. Her complete lack of chemistry with any of the cast is painful. She emotes quite well throughout much of the film, when she is silent, but the problem comes when she chews the dialogue and spits out what appear to be lines from a dictionary, based on her reading. It is quite unfortunate, as Tiger Lily is responsible for much of the exposition in the movie. And then, there’s Jackman. Le sigh. A force so powerful he overshadows the ridiculous hair and makeup conundrum that is Blackbeard. I think it is written in his contract somewhere that he must sing at every entrance in a film. Hugh does eventually settle into the role of Blackbeard nicely; he’s a villain with which Miller counterbalances well. It just takes so long to get over how BIG his performance is.
All in all, your kids will have a good time, you’ll fall in love with Hedlund (Hands off! He’s mine!), and you’ll be entertained…for about two hours. And then you’ll go home and forget you ever saw it. My advice? Do what I’m doing tonight. Watch Atonement, and go to Disney World. Bases covered.