Director: Joe Wright / Script: Jason Fuchs (based on J. M. Barrie’s characters) / Editing: William Hoy / DP: John Mathieson, Seamus McGarvey
Cast: Hugh Jackman / Levi Miller / Garrett Hedlund / Rooney Mara / Adeel Akhtar / Nonso Anozie / Cara Delevingne / Kathy Burke
This Pan Needs Flushing…
The tragedy of Pan, is that it should be the work of Joe Wright, a British director I have much respect for, having given us films such as Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007) and this year’s Oscar darling, Darkest Hour, amongst others. Yet Wright fell asleep at the wheel for this one: my suspicion, is that he was lost amidst the enormity of the production and applied himself less than ideal to script, casting & performance.
Famously, Jason Fuch’s script was plucked from ‘the black-list’. Compiled each year, it’s a list of the industry’s favourite unmade scripts. According to the IMDB, Wright attached himself to the project after a producer finally opted to make it. Wright has said, that he chose to do it ‘for his son’. However, I’m forced to conclude that, for his boy to remember him in the cold, empty years to come, I think Wright Sr. might’ve exercised better judgement!
I think the script’s very premise – an origin story for Peter Pan – is answering a question no-one cares about; a similar problem that nullified Finding Dory (2016). The characters in J. M. Barrie’s masterpiece, have become so ingrained into the culture by now, it’s as though every attempt at breathing new life into them, has to have a twist of some kind, rather than just re-tell the story. Since Disney’s animated classic of 1953, we’ve had Spielberg’s dirge Hook (1991), that reinvented the Lost Boys and Neverland, as a mash-up between a Pepsi commercial and Mad-Max’s Thunderdome. P.J. Hogan’s Peter Pan (2003) was a better effort, but did little business. Marc Forster’s Finding Neverland (2004), focussed on Barrie’s creative process and how he was influenced by a neighbouring family in-need of a little escapist fantasy. A good film, as it turned-out, but one in which the magic played second-fiddle to Johnny Depp’s Scottish accent.
Disney’s seminal effort aside then, every live-action adaptation has failed, either artistically, financially or both. Crikey, there’s yet another one currently in pre-production as I write this, so evidently Wright’s mis-step is no barrier to repeating the same mistakes… Though why a director of Wright’s calibre thought he could ‘break the curse’, beats me…
His film opens in a bleak, desaturated (though mercifully fog-free) London, as a foundling in a basket, is left on the front step of an orphanage. Fast-forward a few years and while the city might be enduring the Luftwaffe’s Blitz, it’s not all doom and gloom, for the orphan now has a name – Peter – and an actor, in the shape of Levi Miller, for whom the movie’s ensuing grind never seems an issue. It’s the part of a lifetime for him and, boy, does he look like he’s having fun. Nice to see that at least someone drank the production’s Kool-Aid…
Anyway, the script lumbers-on for too long here, even indulging in a shameless pastiche of Oliver! that I found insulting; no matter that the home’s under the callous (and calloused) Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke, sporting a gloriously dirty Oirish accent). It’s murky for a reason, of course, as Peter (and all his fellow orphans) are soon whisked off to Neverland; lifted from their beds, by a bunch of pirates on the end of bungees, who look like refugees from a production by Cirque de Soleil. All, that is, apart from Peter’s best mate Nibs, who jumps to freedom from the pirate’s flying galleon.
After a noisy, busy duel with some Spitfires, directed into the fray by RAF plotters who look like they’re all paying homage to Kim Hunter’s June from A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the ship lifts itself above the clouds and on into space, in one of the film’s few grace-notes. Alas, it doesn’t last, because no sooner do they arrive in the dazzling, visually-arresting Neverland, than they’re thrown into yet another grubby location: an open-cast mine, teeming with workers, in scenes reminiscent of the Hell shown in Geoffrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi (1988).
This is the source of a rare mineral (and the picture’s McGuffin) Pixum. When smoked a-la crack-cocaine, it rejuvenates the user who, in this particular dystopia, is none-other than Blackbeard. Yes, you read that correctly: the real-life pirate Blackbeard, who’s dished-up here by screenwriter Fuchs for no other reason I can discern, other than the fact he’s a popular pirate figure who ISN’T Hook…
The role is inhabited by none-other than Hugh Jackman, who brings two things to the production. First, a bouffant wig so-stiff, it could double as a water-butt, Second, a side-order of theatrical ham that’s so juicy – so thick – he’s still gnawing on it, as the end-credits administer the coup-de-grace. Jackman seems unsure of his tone in this picture; uncertain, of whether to be brutish or a cad in the mould of Terry Thomas and, as a result, he comes across as a borderline schizophrenic. Blackbeard has somehow pitched-up in this Neverland and enslaved generations of perpetually-teenage boys, to mine his drug of choice and build themselves a steampunk compound of pylons, cable-cars and assorted dirigibles along the way. Astonishing.
But even this, pales at what we hear when Blackbeard appears before his slaves (don’t call them ‘Lost Boys’. Not yet): a football chant rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit! For a start, WHY? Are we meant to believe that Blackbeard (or his lieutenants) now have the ability to travel back and forth across time, cherry-picking pop-culture references when it suits them? And why this song only? Why not snatches of other songs or cultural moments, that’ve occurred since the war? Such a Neverland could then be seen as a true wonder, filled with ‘prisoners’ from across time. It’s mind-boggling and leads me to think that Wright was simply indulging his inner-punk for no other reason than he could: that’s some lapse of judgement!
This might be a good point to jump-in with discussion on wardrobe. As James Hook, Garrett Hedlund looks like he’s an Indiana Jones cosplayer. All he needs is a bullwhip and George Lucas’s phone number. Talking of wardrobe, let’s talk about Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily. In Barrie’s original, Tiger Lily was of Native American stock, as was her tribe. But, for this production, Fuchs & Wright took an easier path and cast the extras of a Benetton commercial, for their ‘Tribal Territory’. Thus we get an Aboriginal elder in-charge of representatives of all-nations, yet his daughter (Mara) is resolutely WHITE!
Come to think of it, so is the leading quartet. Is this a blatant example of ‘white-washing’? Sure looks like it!
The ‘Tribal Village’ itself is nothing special either, resembling the Ewok village on Endor, though at least Wright didn’t have Peter levitate either himself or the Chief as Luke Skywalker did. That’s because our hero Peter hasn’t yet learnt to fly. That’s not entirely true, for reasons I can’t be bothered to explain but the point is, he can’t yet do it on-command. No matter: he has three days of cooling his heels as a guest of the tribe, to work it out.
Then Blackbeard turns-up. There’s a consequence-free, over-choreographed skirmish, then our pantomime villain has Peter & Lily aboard his flagship, (The Queen Anne’s Revenge) in search of the Fairy kingdom and its inexhaustible supply of pixie-crack; Hook, meanwhile, has found an abandoned galleon and manages to single-handedly knock it into-shape, in-time to catch-up with, then with Peter’s help, destroy the ‘Revenge.
The picture ends with Peter returning in Hook’s ship to the orphanage, to collect Nibs and all the other orphans, who’d mysteriously replaced those lost in Act One. What? Sorry, but where were the Authorities? I mean, I know there was a war on and all, but shouldn’t these kids have been evacuated to the country in the first place? And who was Mother Barnabas blackmailing, in order to be given another batch of orphans, after the last lot just disappeared? It’s a children’s fantasy picture. I get that. But come on! Show a little respect for our collective intelligence please!
The film is reductive, patronising, raucous and lacking-in soul. It suffers from an uneven thematic tone and dwells too-long on desaturated miseries, when the whole point of Peter Pan, is to indulge in the cathartic technicolour magic of Neverland!
What else? Well, the action sequences are bereft of invention, with over-reliance on dodgy wirework and trampolines and the whole misfiring mess, lacks editorial concision. Character motivation is non-existent, apart from two strands: Blackbeard’s addled, feverish drive for Pixum at-all-costs and Peter’s desire to see his mother for the first time. That’s it.
But worst of all, the four principals look like they’re treating Wright’s film as a long-form audition for something else. Jackman, for a panto next Christmas. Hedlund, for Indiana Jones 5. Miller, for a post-school career. It’s Mara however, who appears most uncomfortable here. It’s as though she took the part in good faith, then saw herself in-costume for the first time and realised she couldn’t leave, thanks to her ‘Golden Handcuffs’…
Being an origin story, Fuchs layers-in references to the tropes we know and love: when Blackbeard learns that he’s missing some of his slaves, he refers to them as ‘Lost Boys’. We see the crocodile. A trio of Mermaids (who all resemble a cloned Cara Delevingne). When Peter’s back at the orphanage, he’s wearing the jaunty cap from Disney’s animated hero and more. But such homage-paying only serves to underline the fatal weakness undermining this farrago and which I’ll reiterate here: no-one NEEDED an origin story for this property. If that was the only reason this film got made in the first place, then I think Fuch’s script should’ve remained unmade.
Audiences respond to movies that convey both intent and message in simple terms. Over-complication leads to confused audiences, which is the problem here. Whatever Fuchs’s & Wright’s original intentions may have been, they got lost in-translation. Both men have forgotten that at the heart of the Peter Pan story – and indeed, most fantastical classics of children’s literature – there’s a wonder; a childish joy on seeing (and being part of) a new world and balancing that with necessary drama. When a film-maker gets that balance right, irrespective of whether original material or an adaptation, we as the audience are spellbound, often forgiving of flaws that might otherwise undermine the picture: Avatar (2009) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) being two such examples.
But when it goes wrong, the flaws are all we see. In the case of Pan, neither Wright nor Fuchs dwell on the world they’re creating for long enough to imbue us with any of that wonder. Their work joins a growing list of failed sequels to pictures that, frankly, could’ve done without the embarrassment. I’m looking at you, Return to Oz (1985) and NeverEnding Story 2 (1990).
That I have to add Pan to the list of shame, bring me little pleasure.
I don’t do mercy!