“Pan” Is A Trial By Whimsy

Can I be honest for a minute? I’m really sick to death of Chosen One narratives. And don’t ever mention the word “prophecy” to me again. Making the lead character of a novel or film the Chosen One automatically drains the tension — and subsequently the life — out of a story. We know the character’s not going to perish, because they’re the Chosen One. We know they’ll get out of any predicament they’ve gotten themselves into, because they’re the Chosen One.

What we’re left with, then, is a story without real stakes and without real danger or drama. What we’re left with, then, is a film like Pan.

In this prequel to J. M. Barrie’s classic story, Peter (Levi Miller) is a 12-year-old in World War II London, suffering in an orphanage that seems like Harry Potter by way of Oliver Twist. One night, he’s snatched up to Neverland by the pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, all pancake makeup and piano teeth) and put to work mining for fairy dust (or “pixum” if you want to be insufferably twee about it). With the help of fellow miner James Hook (yes, that Hook, here played with both hands by Garrett Hedlund), Peter escapes the mine and finds a tribe of Neverland natives who believe he’s the key to ending their conflict with Blackbeard because he wears a pan flute pendant. Oh, and he can fly. Sometimes.

If you think that a large portion of the film is dedicated to Peter believing in himself and learning how to fly, you’d be right. If you think that grafting a generic hero quest onto a character who certainly didn’t call for one feels awkward, you’d also be right. If you think I got tried of hearing the phrase “chosen one” by about minute 67 of a nearly two-hour film, congratulations. You win the No-Prize.

Director Joe Wright, working off a script by Jason Fuchs, doesn’t really seem to know what kind of movie he’s creating. It’s a little too violent for a kids’ picture, and it’s certainly too facile and shallow to be an adult exploration of the Peter Pan archetype. There’s a weird sense of conflict in the film’s metatext, as if like its Peter Pan, it doesn’t know what it is, what it wants, or where it’s going beyond a vague goal of “somewhere.” That sense of uncertainty permeates every aspect of the film, from its mismatched Cirque du CGI set pieces to the wavering accents of the main cast. This is a film that has a hundred fairy dust miners greet a flying pirate ship with a spontaneous rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for no discerinible reason (yes, that is a thing that happened…I am not making this up).

Wright almost seems to acknowledge this, and he decides to make up for it with whimsy. Lots of whimsy. Whimsy whether you want it or not. But the thing is, whimsical is not something you deliver with a hammer (or with a punishingly bombastic John Powell score). Pan is never as clever and cute as it thinks it is, and when the script drops allusions to Barrie’s original work, they land with all the grace and delicacy of a Looney Tunes anvil. (Although the mermaids with the bio-luminescent tails was a very nice touch.)

The main saving grace of the film would probably have to be Hugh Jackman’s scenery-chewing performance as Blackbeard. He’s clearly relishing a role that doesn’t require him to constantly brood, growl, and snikt for two hours or require a grueling, ab-defining workout regimen. The goth-clown makeup and steampunk Vasco de Gama Halloween costume are unfortunate, but Jackman makes it work. He sells even the lamest of sword-fighting one-liners as if they were genuinely witty repartee.

The rest of the cast never rises to Jackman’s level, however, although Levi Miller does still do a remarkably good job with the flimsy material he's given. He’s not a great Peter Pan as the world knows him, but he’s a good 12-year-old orphan named Peter. Garrett Hedlund does manage to at least look dashing, but his Hook is little more than an expy of The Mummy’s Rick O’Connell with the line delivery of a passable Jack Nicholson impersonator. His interactions with tribal warrior princess Tiger Lily (played adequately if not remarkably by Rooney Mara) are refreshingly less theatrical, and while the actors have decent chemistry, the relationship between them is never given the proper time or room to grow organically.

Tiger Lily is a perfect example of one of the main issues with the film. She’s written in the source material as a Native American, but Wright cast a very Caucasian actress in the part. The tribe itself is made up of people of many different ethnicities and colors, seemingly in an effort to distance itself from the outdated Native stereotypes that so often accompany it. But its most prominent member is not only very pale, but her ultra-white makeup makes her possibly the lightest-skinned person in Neverland. By trying to avoid the thorny issue of how Tiger Lily and her tribe are portrayed, he actually draws attention to the problem he’s trying to escape. (The fact that several actresses of color were passed up for the part in favor of Mara only makes it worse.)

And it is the same with the film as a whole. By trying to make things as fantastical as possible, Wright actually shows how mundane and tedious the final product is. While it works well as eye candy, and it would probably babysit a kid for two hours if necessary, it doesn’t exactly serve as a winning advertisement for a Neverland vacation. You’d think that being the Chosen One would be a lot more fun than this.

FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C

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