Movie Review: Pan
By Ben Gruchow
October 15, 2015
It’s strange how many resources can be poured into a production, how much complexity and accomplishment in set and costume design, makeup, props, and CGI can be invested by talented individuals, and how little any of it matters if the director doesn’t have a clear vision. How pointless all of that craft is when the script is a collection of stilted and rudimentary dialogue and monologue, stretched out and languorous for most of its running time.
I wanted very much to like Pan, the “hero’s origin” retelling/retcon of the Peter Pan story. The director, Joe Wright, made one of my favorite period pieces in 2007 with Atonement, and his resume clearly shows a man intoxicated by and adept at evoking time and place. Here, granted a $150 million budget and a screenplay that barely hits the minimum amount of conflict necessary, he lets his imagination run wild. Or perhaps he saw that a movie about alternate realities and pirates and human flight was turning out mercilessly rote and became desperate. Either way, the end result is a movie that looks great in concept but exhausting in motion, without much of a brain in its head.
This is regrettable, because there’s the seed of a good approach here. The establishment of the storyline, involving the heritage of Peter (Levi Miller) and his early years at and escape from a joyless orphanage, has some overlap with J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. By “some”, I really mean “barely any, and what’s there is pretty superficial”, but it’s not not there.
Peter eventually ends up in Never Land, which takes the form here of a suspended island where wooden ships sail across empty air, and he is placed into slave labor. The slave master is, pointlessly, Blackbeard. He’s played by Hugh Jackman, under layers of elaborate makeup, as a slack and villainous riff on Jack Sparrow. The real Blackbeard had a reputation of respect and even courtesy to those he commandeered; such nuance is beyond the scope of this film, where Blackbeard is introduced during a crowd-chant cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and he commandeers the crowd like an announcer at the Colosseum.
When it’s not focused on Jackman’s character, Pan seems to exist mostly to trot out characters we’re familiar with, and to spin them in a marginally-new context. Hook, played by Garrett Hedlund, is no longer the villainous pirate; now he’s a fellow miner with an Indiana Jones hat, and his character arc consists of disliking Peter until the script requires him to change his mind.
There is Tiger Lily, now envisioned as a warrior in one of Neverland’s secret tribes, and made to share their tradition of doing typical tribal things while wearing an assortment of eye-searingly colorful garb. Tiger Lily is played by Rooney Mara, and all of the makeup and hairstyling and masks in all of Warner Bros’s backlot can’t hide her confusion and boredom with this project. There are times when you’re watching a movie and you’re witnessing an actor or actress do or say something and you actively feel bad for them, knowing - as they do - that the mistake they’ve made is committed to celluloid (or a hard drive) for all eternity.
Whenever a big-budget sci-fi/fantasy film involves an isolated ecosystem, because of a lost island or a new planet or what have you, I always like to look in the corners and edges of the screen. Here is an opportunity to paint with a blank canvas. Peter Jackson’s King Kong came out in 2005, and the studio released a tie-in book exclusively and extensively documenting the flora and fauna of Skull Island. We watch that movie, and it’s rewarding to see how completely the world feels all of a piece. James Cameron’s Avatar went even further into this documentary aspect, and it was earned; the movie’s ecosystem was remarkably well-developed.
In Pan, we are shown barren canyons for mining, thick jungles, forests, and caves, and none of it looks like anything more than a digital backdrop for a scene. There’s no substantial forethought given to how this world works, or if it does at all. The actors, who are largely adrift by the screenplay and conception of their characters, never succeed in making us believe they’re actually occupying the space they’re supposed to be.
Throughout it all, there is constant movement, cutting, shouted dialogue, dire warnings, and copious special effects. Consider what this could have been if Wright and Fuchs had scaled back just a little, or if they’d had a little more respect for their characters. What if Blackbeard had actually been written and played by Jackman to be the gentleman pirate he evidently was in reality? It would not have fixed the weariness of the character’s arc (which boils down to, “something, something, live forever”), but in all regards it would have deepened and enhanced Blackbeard, and given us something sort of new. Instead, Jackman shrieks and exclaims and generally fails to make much of an impression.
What if Hedlund were given more to do as Hook besides awkwardly flirt with Tiger Lily? What if the numerous airships we saw looked somewhat plausible, instead of being standard wooden ships that happen to be able to fly? What if the antagonistic character of Mother Burnabas were treated with more gravity, and less as a growling, pratfall-prone clown? What if, in other words, Pan stopped trying to be so much fun? It could have been so much more. Instead, we have a misconceived, misbegotten piece of work from a talented director. What a waste.