Peter Pan Prequel is Visually Pleasing But Incoherent
DIRECTOR: JOE WRIGHT/2015
Pan is a very strange movie. It’s a newly created backstory for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, but it makes hay of what we know about that fictional world. Peter (Levi Miller) is no longer the mischievous, irrepressible boy who refuses to grow up. Now he’s a messianic figure with the weight of Neverland on his narrow shoulders. Hook (Garrett Hedlund) is no longer a bewigged pirate. Instead he’s something akin to Han Solo – the handsome rake who pretends to care only for himself – but with a lot more very theatrical mugging . Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) is not a damsel in distress, but a combat-booted warrior. And that’s just for starters….
Explaining the actual story of Pan is an almost impossible task. Peter is an orphan (but not just an ordinary orphan) living an orphanage where the horrible nuns are selling children to pirates who come through the ceiling at night and snatch the orphans up to fly them off to Neverland where they are enslaved mining for Pixum (pixie dust) for Blackbeard who needs the pixie dust for its rejuvenating properties. There are pirates who look like clowns, and mermaids who glow in the dark, and natives who burst into clouds of brightly colored smoke when killed (the battle scene looks like a Color Run 5k). And also, Blackbeard’s slaves sing songs by Nirvana and the Ramones.
Confused yet? Despite all of that, the movie is also undeniably derivative. The hideous, brutal head of the orphanage, Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), looks and behaves like Matilda’s Miss Trunchabull. The orphan with a prophetic destiny is borrowed from Harry Potter (among other stories). The noble natives who risk their lives protecting a magical natural resource evoke Avatar’s Na’vi.
Narratively, Pan is a confusing mess. Nevertheless….I didn’t hate it. Perhaps it was because I saw it with a child who enjoyed the spectacle (but who was astute enough to lean over and whisper that Garrett Hedlund does not seem like a very good actor).
Perhaps I enjoyed “Pan” because it seemed like a family film from another era: one of the imaginative and visually rich fantasy films of the ’80s like “The Dark Crystal”, “Labyrinth” or “The Neverending Story”. They didn’t all age well, but those movies tapped into a childlike wonder that director Joe Wright seems to be aiming for in Pan – and he doesn’t entirely miss.
The pirates swinging down on ropes and snatching orphans from their beds, the air battle between a pirate ship and World War II British spit fires, the ship’s passage through a sky full of self-contained aquatic worlds…these scenes are undeniably fun to look at, even if the story that drives them is inexplicable.
Hugh Jackman makes a decent villain, too. His Blackbeard is a gaunt and sallow, in elaborately gothic armor. His teeth are like tiny sharpened spikes and there’s something mad and desperate in his eyes. It makes his attempts at seeming jovial and kind all the more menacing.
Director Joe Wright is known for a very different kind of movie: elegant historical dramas like Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. He turned to an entirely different genre and a very different box of tricks with Pan, and I’m afraid the effort can’t be considered a success. But if you squint a bit at the especially absurd parts, enjoy the visuals, and perhaps watch it with a child, it’s not all bad.