There’s a defining moment in “Pan” where hundreds of pirates of “every color and creed” gather together in a mining site to chant the lyrics to Nirvana’s anthem for apathy “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” If you hear this and think, “That sounds intriguing,” you might like director Joe Wright’s live-action “Peter Pan” prequel. However, if your reaction is “Wait, why?,” you’ll likely find this children’s film as inexplicable and unsatisfying as I did.
I take no pleasure in telling you that “Pan” is awful.
I adored Wright’s sensual “Pride and Prejudice,” his sumptuous “Anna Karenina” and his ruthless “Hanna,” but “Pan” feels in no way like one of this films. Instead of a mindful use of tender performances and breathtaking sets explored with awe-inspiring cinematography, this kiddie flick is frustratingly full of CGI, a cacophony of dissonant influences, and performances that are downright embarrassing.
Newcomer Levi Miller stars as Peter, a 12-year-old who makes mischief in a World War II-era London orphanage ruled by a fat, vile old nun. That is until he’s whisked away to Neverland by pirates who bungee-jump into the boys’ dorms before dropping them into slavery in the aforementioned mines. There they’ll dig for pixie dust, a mineral that the malevolent Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) uses as an eternal youth drug. Did you get all that? Because it’s only the beginning of this bloated tale.
There’s also Peter’s destiny to be a savior to Neverland natives who look like they’ve survived a craft store explosion, draped as they are in tassels and yarn, and slathered with body paint. Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) introduces Peter and his cowboy pal James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) to the tribe’s ways, and to their battle against Blackbeard. All the while, Peter is looking for his mother, and Hook is looking for a way out of Neverland.
Now, you might think this is all meant to set up how Peter and Hook go from unlikely allies to fearsome foes; the movie even begins with a voiceover introduction that suggests as much. However, that doesn’t happen. There’s too much plot as it is, so “Pan” never attempts to make the pivotal turn it promises. (Perhaps in “Pan 2: The Hookening”?)
The movie’s production design is similarly overstuffed. Aside from the inclusion of the classic tale’s swashbuckling pirates, grubby Lost Boys, glittering fairies, dazzling mermaids, noble tribes and a gargantuan crocodile, “Pan” adds clowns, space travel, a flying pirate ship, cowboys, nuns and WWII bombings. Why? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Sure, there’s a line from Blackbeard about how Neverland is all timey-wimey when it comes to plucking people (well, men) from any era, but the plot offers no actual reason. Artistically this choice doesn’t make for a fun fusion as much as a massive mess of jarring styles, which is all the more frustrating when you consider how elegantly Wright wove a theater context into “Anna Karenina” and how masterfully he created a modern fairy tale conceit within the assassin story “Hanna.”
Like “Pan”s crass collision of influences, its performances are all over the place. While Miller looks the part of the spritely boy who could fly, he lacks the necessary charm to pull audiences through the rough edges of the film’s woefully clunky narrative. Hedlund as Hook offers a wonky “cowboy” accent that’s all bluster and recurring cadence, leaving no room for character development. Before long, he’s exhausting, and I was rooting for the crocodile to just show up already.
Mara looks lovely as the lily-white Tiger Lily, whose funky fashion would fit in well in Hipster Brooklyn on a Friday night. But she’s given little do beyond be the stern counter to the boys’ bravado, and halfheartedly flirt with Hook in a fishy romantic subplot so under-cooked it could go for a swim.
The only star who brings some genuine fun to “Pan” is Jackman. His pirate portrayal is totally over the top, full of silent film-era posing and Shatner-esque hamming. This is his “Jupiter Ascending” performance, flashy, goofy and passionate. It might be too campy — hard to tell in the context of such a tonally confused film — but he’s at least entertaining, even when reciting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” like they’re personal mantras.
As to the action, it’s disorienting at best, but mostly dull. Too often Peter leaps off the practical sets and soars down into the uncanny valley, thanks to subpar CGI that makes him a rubbery cartoon reminiscent of “Polar Express.” Then things get downright ludicrous in the climax where fairies that look like self-aware glitter fly about as a tiny, shiny army. But these are just a drop in the bucket of “Pan’s” WTF elements, including the pirates’ tedious trudging through alternative anthems, carnivorous birds made of bones, and Peter’s mom’s penchant for parkour.
There’s no apparent baseline for logic. And because Peter and Hook are only rough sketches of tired archetypes (the scrappy orphan, the arrogant loner), there’s no real emotional hook to its narrative either. And so we pan …
“Pan” opens today nationwide.
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