'Pan': Film Review
Hugh Jackman and Rooney Mara star in director Joe Wright's adaptation of the classic novel.
In possession of a title that, for many critics, will undoubtedly seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Pan hatches an entirely unnecessary origin story for a wonderful tale that has already been held up to the light from many different angles. Oddly repositioning Peter Pan's emergence to the World War II era and employing a barrage of sophisticated special effects to produce no magic nearly as enchanting as Tinkerbell flickering back to life in the musical stage version, this strenuous undertaking was obviously made in the hope that the global audience has an unending appetite for anything set in Neverland. But just as P.J. Hogan's similarly grandiose and ambitious Peter Pan surprisingly flopped in 2003, this one may also be headed for a low-altitude flight.
Overweight and uninspired Peter Pan films have succeeded before, most notably the 1991 Hook, one of Steven Spielberg's worst efforts. But that had half of Hollywood's biggest stars at the time onboard, whereas here the roster of main characters is too winnowed down and the chemistry doesn't take; the actors all try hard to keep the energy up but never get convincingly in synch and, with the exception of Peter, the characters don't reasonably comport with one's pre-existing images of them.
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The idea driving Jason Fuchs' script, which, in the credits' delicate phrasing, is "based on characters introduced by J.M. Barrie," is that of a young London orphan boy's discovery of his true identity and proper home at a location on no known map. The key elements are his abandonment at birth by his bereft mother and subsequent assistance rendered by one James Hook, a rambunctious young adventurer with two good hands, not one, and not a trace of malevolence about him.
First come hijnks of a mild sort at London's Lambeth Home for Boys, the scenes made tolerably amusing by the tyrannical methods (and ultimate comeuppance) of the fantastically hideous old overseer Mother Barnabas (an extensively made-up Kathy Burke). Peter (12-year-old Australian Levi Miller) and partner in crime Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) delight in laddish mischief. But the former gets more than he bargained for when pirates, led by the elegant and eloquent Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, all but unrecognizable at first with his inky goatee, Village People mustache and shaved head, adorned sporadically with a swept-back bee-hive hairpiece), swoop in on an old sailing ship from a sky otherwise filled with Nazi bombers, kidnap the tykes and set a course for Neverland.
Blackbeard's nefarious dominion, which for a moment or two calls to mind a lite version of Joe's Citadel in Mad Max: Fury Road, appears threatened by the increasing scarcity of that most precious of natural resources, pixum, from which the power of flight, among other things, is obtained. Upon arrival at the tropical island, Peter is immediately put to work, along with countless other boys, digging for fairy dust, as it has also been called, in an enormous pit; anyone who has seen the extraordinary photographs by Sebastiao Salgado of Brazilian gold quarries teeming with poor workers will immediately recognize the inspiration for director Joe Wright and production designer Aline Bonetto in the look of this setting.
Also working in the mines is a fellow named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), who rematerializes as an Indiana Jones clone, takes Peter under his wing and, along with another cohort, the relatively useless Smee (Adeel Akhtar), commandeers another flying ship, proceeding to outfox Blackbeard at nearly every turn.
From here on, the film becomes a seriously extended chase that possesses hefty CGI-propelled dynamics but absolutely no suspense and a very limited sense of fun. The shots of pirate-era sailing ships careening through the air like so many outer space vehicles become repetitive and are made worse for lack of defining purpose. Meanwhile, the invented threats to the heroes (assorted brigands, ferocious big birds, the inevitable crocodile) come and go like momentary distractions in a theme park ride. Equally arbitrary is the appearance of not one, not two, but three mermaids impersonated by Cara Delevingne.
Then there's the problem of Tiger Lily, originally written by Barrie as a Native American princess, a role considered stereotypical and racist on the one hand and inviolate, for casting purposes, on the other. Because an actress of color was not selected, Rooney Mara's winning of the part was widely protested when announced and is bound to catch renewed flak again now. Wright has attempted to blur, if not erase, the issue by making the natives a thoroughly multi-cultural lot not dominated, as far as one can tell, by any one race. Be that as it may, Mara is made up and garbed in quasi-”Indian” fashion and, regardless of whatever rationalizations may be advanced, she was cast for just one reason: that she's a star name, and a very talented one at that. One could actually complain about her casting here from a different point of view, by arguing that she should have rejected the part because it's not a good one and is unworthy of the other films she's made since breaking through in The Social Network five years ago.
As for perennial star-of-the-future Hedlund, he definitely looks to be doing an Indy audition here, right down to the almost identical wardrobe, and he brings both an appealing rambunctiousness and a divertingly theatrical vocal approach to his adventurer character. Unfortunately, the part is written in one-note, can-do, nothing-can-stop-me mode, so his antics become wearisome, albeit no more so than everything else in the film. Mystifyingly, there is no foreshadowing of the man Hook will one day become.
So what fun there is falls to Jackman, who gives the grand old man of pirate characters plenty of fresh and unusual wrinkles and emerges better than the others simply by virtue of playing a two-dimensional, rather than one-dimensional, figure. He makes Blackbeard into a contradictory Janus-like presence, a man of great humor and intelligence one moment and utter ruthlessness and brutality the next; he's certainly never to be underestimated or trifled with. This is perhaps the film role most suggestive of Jackman's less widely known skills as a legitimate theater star.
The effects and production values are high-end, and there's a bit of fun provided by Jackman incongruously breaking into song with the likes of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Blitzkrieg Bop." After a certain point, one is thankful for small favors in such a bloated affair.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Levi Miller, Adeel Akhtar, Kathy Burke, Nonso Anozie, Amanda Seyfried, Jack Charles, Lewis MacDougall, Bronson Webb, Taejoo Na, Cara Delevingne
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Jason Fuchs, based on characters introduced by J.M. Barrie
Producers: Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Paul Webster
Executive producers: Tim Lewis, Steve Mnuchin
Directors of photography: Seamus McGarvey, John Mathieson
Production designer: Aline Bonetto
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Editors: Paul Tothill, William Hoy
Music: John Powell
Visual effects supervisor: Chas Jarrett
Casting: Jina Jay, Dixie Chassay
PG rating, 111 minutes