Joe Wright | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG
12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller) lives in an orphanage in World War 2 London… until the night pirates bungee in through the ceiling and kidnap a bunch of boys onto their flying galleon. Yes, really. From there it’s second star to the right and straight on ’til morning as the pirates take their new charges to Neverland, where they’re forced into the Mad Max-esque mining operator of Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). When it turns out Peter can fly, a friendly chap by the name of Hook (Garrett Hedlund) helps him escape, and they head off to find Peter’s destiny, etc — he’s some kind of prophesied Chosen One, because of course he is.
For me, that overripe “Chosen One” arc is the weakest element of Pan. Even then, it’s by no means the worst example in fiction, and it’s executed with a degree of fun and commitment that keeps it entertaining. Otherwise, this is an exciting and enjoyable fantasy adventure, best commended for its inventive, well-realised visuals and colourful design, which when it really clicks can be quite incredible. I suppose that might not be enough to overcome a familiar plot for some viewers, but it eases the way in this particular example. And even if the general arc is a bit rote, there are some quite clever spots of construction and/or references to the original. For instance, Peter can’t read (because Wendy will later teach him), but that also pays off within the film when it turns out he can read the fairy language. On the downside, it doesn’t actually directly connect up to Peter Pan, suggesting someone hoped there’d be sequels — because centring a live-action franchise around a boy who doesn’t age is a great idea.
As said boy, Levi Miller manages to make Peter not intensely irritating, which is an achievement compared to other adaptations. Some of that is surely inherited from the writing and directing, but Miller gives a strong performance too. Hugh Jackman hams it up magnificently as Blackbeard, clearly having a riot. Rooney Mara may be miscast due to the colour of her skin (for all the complaints about whitewashing, her tribe is shown to be mixed race… which doesn’t necessarily excuse it), but her actual performance is very good. I felt like Garrett Hedlund was doing an impersonation of someone but I never quite got a handle on who (the character’s definitely written to be Han Solo, but the actor’s not copying Harrison Ford). Adele Akhtar brings comedy as Hook’s chum, Sam ‘Smee’ Smiegel, there are cameos of varying purpose from Amanda Seyfried and Kathy Burke, and Nonso Anozie is always a welcome presence, here playing Blackbeard’s henchman. Cara Delevingne doesn’t act so much as provide a human reference for the CGI.
I also really liked the score, by John Powell of How to Train Your Dragon. It’s probably not groundbreaking or anything, but it’s suitably adventurous and epic-y. That said, there have been some very odd choices in the music department, like the massive Smells Like Teen Spirit sing-along. Because it’s entirely out of context (as noted, the film is set during World War 2) it plays like a Moulin Rouge rip-off. It’s also not a consistently-executed notion: there are nods at other songs, but they’re not as famous (the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop, for instance, which I only know thanks to the end credits) so they don’t stick out quite as incongruously.
Having found Pan to be a very likeable fantasy adventure, I confess to being slightly confused by the response that saw it soundly trounced by most critics and viewers. The review on Blu-ray.com makes the assertion that “today’s movie audience has become so instinctively sophisticated when it comes to CGI-enhanced action sequences that no one can predict what they’ll like”, which I thought was pretty insightful — when does “amazing spectacle” tip over into “oh my God it’s just more CGI”? I think there’s a definite bias based on what people expect of a film. Indeed, a commenter on Letterboxd asserted that most of Pan “consists of the sort of spectacle-as-sleep-inducer set-pieces you find tacked onto the end of Marvel superhero movies”, which at least criticises the sainted Marvel movies for once, but I didn’t think it made up “most of the movie”, nor did I find it sleep-inducing. In fact, I thought Pan had some of the better CGI-driven-spectacle action sequences I’ve seen in our modern overloaded-with-CGI-driven-spectacle era. It is, however, one of those films that must have been genuinely made with its 3D release in mind — as is often the case with those, it’s not the stuff poking out at you that gives it away, but the in-focus backgrounds, which can be especially awkward to navigate in fast-moving action scenes. As Blu-ray.com’s review of the 3D disc notes, “the chaos of the final battle is easier to follow when the action occurs in recognizably separate planes in space.”
Perhaps another aspect of Pan’s reception is some audience members’ devotion to the original story, which may influence how much you can buy into all the changes and adjustments made here. In many aspects it’s not terribly faithful, and if you love the original — especially a particular version, like, say, the Disney one — this might seem like sacrilege. I have no such attachment (though I’ve nothing against Barrie’s work, or Disney’s, aside from my aforementioned aversion to the eponymous hero), so I was perhaps more open to this Epic Fantasy reimagining. (In that last respect, it definitely falls into the same bracket as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which I wrote about in my review: classics of children’s fantasy adapted and reconfigured with a post-Potter/Rings mindset.)
So boo to the trouncers: with a bit of an open mind to its changes, and a bit of allowance for some of the ideas that don’t actually work, Pan is a colourful, inventive, fun, family-friendly adventure movie. And I’d definitely have watched a sequel.
Pan is available on Sky Cinema from today, including on Now TV.