Posted by : Patrick | October 15, 2015
The story of Peter Pan should be pretty much a no-brainer for Hollywood, with pirates, adventure, and fairy tale magic, yet somehow in a profession full of development-arrested filmmakers who refuse to grow up, adaptations of Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie’s classic have been nothing much to crow about. There have been numerous stabs at it, with mixed results at best; Disney’s animated take has probably fared the best in the public mind, despite its inconsequential place among the studio’s classics, while Steven Spielberg’s bizarrely conceived Hook gets the most air time (I can only assume for the fantastic sets, and not Robin Williams in awkward green tights). P.J. Hogan’s underrated 2003 adaptation Peter Pan has been my favorite, capturing the spirit better than any other, but a new challenger has arrived, Joe Wright’s Pan, which while far from perfect, extends the lifespan of what was becoming an ironically old tale with some crisp freshness.
That freshness has little to do with the tale, however, but in the way it’s presented. Pan is basically an origin story, the sort of thing that itself is growing stale, and while there are a few wrinkles that maintain a mild interest in what’s happening next, it’s got too much of a stock fantasy feel to it. Peter lives in an orphanage and dreams of being special, like so many, but of course in this case he actually is, as eventually he learns that he may me the one destined to save Neverland from an evil pirate king who is not missing a hand. Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman having fun) is a substitute for the normal villain, enslaving children in his pixie dust mines, searching for precious rocks in order prolong his life. This all feels more Narnia or Middle Earth than the celebration of the spirit of youth that Peter Pan usually stands for, which is strange and does put it at some distance. Peter meets all the regulars along the way, who naturally and in accordance with movie rules provide the requisite exposition, comic relief, and/or heart, but some, like the Han Solo roguish James Hook (Garret Hedlund) who at this time is a friend and ally, at least offer some intrigue by playing with their image. It also harkens back to the days when stories for kids could have a little gloom, some scares, and a realization that the world, even a playful one, contains sadness and cruelty. Still, the beats are all standard, and adventure movie fans will feel comfortable that this journey won’t stray far off the beaten story path.
What kept me enthralled with Pan is the superb and often exhilaratingly imaginative filmmaking behind it. Anyone who has seen Wright’s previous film, Anna Karenina, surely remembers a virtuoso first hour that was unlike anything else, and while the director reins in his flare for the dramatic just a bit for this children’s movie, there are sequences in Pan that take the breath away. Golden shafts of lights during a clever kidnapping at the orphanage signal the first hints of something magical in Peter’s gray, dingy WWII life, and men disintegrate into colorful puffs of powdery smoke, giving an otherwise dark second act battle a conflicting visual pop that suggests we’re having fun. It’s riveting stuff, and though Pan contains the usual over-abundance of computer effects that any studio fantasy movie must have, when Wright is allowed to build practical sets to complement, like with the natives’ village, Neverland becomes the rich tapestry of imagination it was always meant to be, and the set pieces he constructs around them pump the movie full of vital essence, making it come alive. A fight on trampolines between Hook and a native warrior is as expertly choreographed as any martial arts film, but with twice the verve, and Tiger Lily’s (Rooney Mara) duel aboard a flying ship with Blackbeard framed against a beautiful cavern backdrop instills more drama than the fisticuffs alone ever could. The quieter moments are done gracefully as well, but dialogue that can be a little too on the nose prevents it from becoming utterly compelling. Still, when given even a moderately decent dramatic opportunity, Wright doesn’t fail to amp up the theatrics to create something other-worldy and visually stimulating, injecting well-worn territory with age-defying zest and some just plain weirdness. Why thousands of miners in a 1940s fantasy land would break out into a rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is beyond me, but it’s an unusual sight to be sure, and unusual is most welcome.
It’s these moments that keep Pan from devolving into something pleasant but forgettable. The actors all do an admirable job, with Mara injecting the most into her thinly drawn character, but at the end I couldn’t help but wonder what Pan may have been if Wright had been given a better screenplay to work with, a story that contained as much power as the images he fashions. As it is, however, Pan still stands as one of the better retellings of the boy who could fly, and sometimes actually soar.
My Rating: 3 out of 4
Be sure to check out Stephanie’s in-depth, lengthy thoughts here