Pan (2015)

2016 #115
Joe Wright | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Australia / English | PG / PG

Pan12-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.

4 out of 5

Pan is available on Sky Cinema from today, including on Now TV.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

2015 #35
David Fincher | 158 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Sweden & Norway / English | 18 / R

Stieg Larsson’s much-hyped novel comes to the screen for the second time in David Fincher’s much-hyped English-language re-adaptation. Somewhere between the pre-release build-up (do you remember the fuss over the trailer’s release? And all those magazine covers and articles?) and now, something clearly went awry: its UK TV premiere back in March was buried mid-week on ITV2.

If you’ve read or seen a previous version then you know the story, which hasn’t succumbed to a massive reworking for the American remake — it’s still set in Sweden, even. If you don’t, it sees disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) being invited by the patriarch of the rich Vanger family (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the murder of his beloved niece, which happened 40 years earlier. At the same time, we follow the trials and tribulations of Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), a troubled twenty-something hacker who must contend with abusive guardians, before eventually teaming up with Mikael to close his investigation. The novel’s original title translates as Men Who Hate Women, and that’s a pretty succinct summary of the grim, violent, nasty places the stories take us.

After an aside into magical character drama and big-business thriller, Fincher has moved back towards more familiar stomping ground here: a boundary-pushing thriller with themes so dark many wouldn’t want to touch it. It also followed hot on the heels of the well-received Swedish screen adaptations of the novels, another reason to stay hands-off; doubly so given that this sticks equally closely to the source novel. The merits of the various versions can be debated ad infinitum, naturally. I’ve not read the novel so can’t compare, but reportedly the Swedish film’s characters are more like those in the book and the plot is even more closely adapted. That said, to a casual viewer, the two films feel very similar in terms of story and character. There are certainly changes, but nothing especially major. For example, the ending has been tweaked — not “completely changed”, as some reports had it, but just streamlined slightly. Some will struggle to even remember the difference if their experience of a previous version was long enough ago. Die hard fans, however, seem to regard it as a massive re-visioning of events. It isn’t.

I could go on with this comparison, but there are plenty enough articles to do that already, and I don’t really want to. Yet it’s quite a hard thing to avoid, purely because the two films materialised so close together. Even distant remakes invite comparison, but when they come out virtually back-to-back it just emphasises the point. So too the fact that the Swedish films were widely and readily available, and that they were acclaimed by both critics and audiences, not cheapo idiomatic versions before the big-budget American one came along. Indeed, though I called it boundary-pushing earlier, few boundaries feel pushed because it’s so close to the Swedish version. Of course, in and of itself — and if you’ve not seen the foreign-language film — there’s a lot of shocking, extreme stuff here. Even for the director who gave us Se7en, this is at times pitch-black material.

And that there is another comparison that dogs the film: Fincher’s previous work. However much of his own touch the director brings to proceedings — and he has produced an incredibly well-made film; in particular, it’s beautifully shot, and there’s a vein of interest to be mined in discussing the fact it was consciously made using a five-act (as opposed to the usual three-act) structure (but not here today, sorry) — it feels unable to innovate or hone the genre in quite the way Se7en or Zodiac did. This is not a movie that will be remembered among the very top-level of his work.

Well, I say that — who knows? Enough films have been reevaluated with time in the history of film that you can’t ever quite be certain. At the moment, the context of comparing it to the Swedish film holds it back, but where that has Noomi Rapace’s performance as Lisbeth in its favour, this has the skill of David Fincher, not to mention a not-half-bad (indeed, Oscar nominated) Lisbeth from Rooney Mara, as well as a quality supporting cast. And the best use of Enya since at least Fellowship of the Ring. Then, from a personal perspective, Se7en and Zodiac are among my most-favourite films, so in that comparison battle Dragon Tattoo almost has a hand tied behind its back. Historical context hasn’t improved since, either, with Fincher’s follow-up being another morally-dark bestselling thriller adaptation, pigeonholing them (for some commentators) as a pair of Fincher-by-numbers placeholders until he comes up with something original again — if he ever does (as naysayers would proclaim).

So my rating may come as a bit of a surprise given the focus of this review, which is primarily my fault for finding it so tough to shrug off all those contexts and comparisons. But hey, that’s something the film itself struggles with in many people’s eyes, too. If the viewer can divorce it from those ties, however, I think it’s still an exceptionally good thriller.

5 out of 5

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on ITV2 tonight at 11:10pm.