With every trailer that I saw for Pan, I knew that this movie would turn out to be awful. There was absolutely zero chance that this could be a good movie. And yet the trailers evoked such a passionate reaction from me that I knew I’d have to review the film.
First of all, this is a movie that comes to us from director Joe Wright, perhaps best known for the good-but-still-overrated Hanna. That movie solidified Wright as a filmmaker more concerned with style than substance, which was further proven with his baffling 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina and his painfully mishandled 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Everything I’ve seen from Joe Wright shows a filmmaker who’s fantastic with visuals and incompetent at storytelling. And the trailers suggested that Pan would be more of the same.
The trailers clearly showed Peter getting dropped off at an orphanage by his mother, who leaves him a note that serves as a crucial plot point. Excuse me while I check my copy of “Peter Pan”, the classic book by J.M. Barrie that this movie is supposedly based on…
“Wendy,” [said Peter,] “I ran away the day I was born.” […] “It was because I heard father and mother,” he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man.”
So here we have a movie supposedly based on “Peter Pan”, supposedly acting as a prequel to show how Peter Pan became the leader of the Lost Boys of Neverland, and it flagrantly contradicts one of the precious few things from the source text that we actually know about Peter’s early days. Let’s call that Strike One.
Then we see Blackbeard, the pirate captain who serves as our antagonist. To be fair, Captain James Hook was clearly said to be Blackbeard’s bo’sun, but based on Strike One, we can safely assume that any resemblance to the source text is coincidental. I should also point out that to my knowledge, there’s nothing in Barrie’s texts to suggest that Blackbeard ever actually visited Neverland.
More importantly, I hate it when Blackbeard is treated as a fairy tale villain because anyone with access to Wikipedia could tell you that Blackbeard (nee Edward Teach) was an actual historical figure. Even better, he was killed by Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who publicly hung Blackbeard’s decapitated head from the bowsprit of his ship on his way to collecting the reward money. Last but not least, Blackbeard died in 1718. And the film takes place over two centuries later. Even if the movie finds some contrived way around all of that completely unnecessary bullshit, I’m calling it Strike Two.
And then the trailers bring up The Prophecy. Yes, the trailers make it abundantly clear that Peter Pan’s coming was foretold by some unknown, infallible source whose words and powers are not subject to any kind of rules or logic. Let’s set aside that this is a trope of pathetically lazy writing that keeps infecting Hollywood blockbusters (Alice in Underland is still my favorite recent example). Let’s set aside that because we have a Prophecy, we already know that this story will follow the tired Hero’s Journey template beat for beat without any variation. All of that aside, this is supposed to be a prequel to “Peter Pan”!
The whole point of a prequel is to show how established characters got to where we know they will be. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. In this case, it’s about how a boy came to be Peter Pan. And we already know right from the outset that he didn’t get to be Peter Pan through any kind of hard work or clever planning or charisma of any kind. No, he got to be Peter Pan because someone or other said he would be. That’s it. The mantle just fell into his lap at the outset for absolutely no reason, through no effort of his own, and we get to spend two hours watching him decide that he’s going to pick it up. Even from Jason Fuchs, whose sole other screenwriting credit is Ice Age: Continental Drift, I might have expected more. And that makes Strike Three.
Put it all together and we’ve got a predictable, lazy movie made for the sole purpose of cashing in on a globally recognized property (that’s public domain, which makes it more convenient), even though it’s clear that no one involved gave the slightest of fucks about the source material. From Peter Pan to Blackbeard, it’s a movie all about picking up recognizable names and throwing them at the audience without the tiniest idea of what they are or why they mean so much to the world at large.
But shit, if I had gotten this far into my blog entry without having even seen the film, I figured that I may as well see how much worse things could get and finish both. But oh, gentle reader, I had no idea how bad things could get. This movie turned out to be so much more awful than any sane person could possibly have imagined.
To start with, the movie does indeed take place primarily during World War II. And our first big action set piece involves pirates kidnapping young boys orphaned by the war, sailing into the sky while engaging in a great big dogfight with British fighter planes. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, since the movie has so many bigger problems to address, but suffice to say that this is comparable to staging an adaptation of Harry Potter in which Death Eaters were shown to be responsible for 9/11. There’s a right way and a wrong way to use real-life catastrophes as a backdrop for lighthearted fantasy. The sight of London getting torn to shreds by fighter pilots and cannonballs at a time when London really was getting bombed by Nazis on a regular basis is not the right way.
But then we actually get to Neverland, and this is the point when I honestly thought I was going to have a goddamn stroke. Because Peter and his fellow kidnapped orphans are greeted by hundreds of pirates and the slave miners in their employ (we’ll get to that in a minute). They’re all singing in unison. They’re not singing the melody, they’re singing the lyrics. Clearly audible for us to hear. Then Blackbeard shows up and sings right along with them.
And what’s the song? “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Let me repeat that: A pirate who died in 1718 is now in the 1940s, and he’s leading his army as they sing a grunge rock song from 1991. Oh, and later on, as they’re sending kids to walk the plank, they sing “Blitzkrieg Bop”. Again, there’s no context and no explanation. It’s just there.
What the high holy fuck is this supposed to be? Are we still watching a Peter Pan adaptation? Did either of those bands’ estates sign off on this? If so, why?! This is raw stupidity on a level that I didn’t even know existed. I can’t possibly break down all these levels of bullshit. I can’t begin to imagine how much methamphetamine it would take for so many people from conception to screen to think that this was a good idea… and then double down on it. I wish I could adequately describe just how incredibly painful this is, but there’s a blood vessel in my brain that’s about to burst and it’s kinda hard to think through that. So let’s move on.
Anyway. Why do the pirates need slave miners? Well, it seems that Blackbeard is mining fairy dust so that he can stay forever young. No explanation is made about how Blackbeard got to Neverland and apparently faked his death back on Earth. So I guess he really is just a pirate called Blackbeard because fuck you.
Oh, and I hasten to add that fairies themselves are quite scarce in Neverland. Why? “Because Blackbeard hunted them all to near-extinction” is the reason we’re given.
I… just… *heavy sigh* Hey, Lex? Can you take this for me, please? Thank you.
“You see children know such a lot now, they soon don’t believe in fairies, and every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”
I’m just going to let that quotation stand as solid evidence that nobody in the cast and crew ever bothered to read the book or even see the stage musical. At this point, I seriously doubt that “screenwriter” Jason Fuchs even knows how to read.
To summarize, the fairies are all in hiding, the pirates are all militaristic and evil, the mermaids are nothing more than a gorgeous deus ex machina, and the Indians… yeah, let’s get to the Indians.
There’s absolutely no denying that Barrie’s portrayal of Native Americans was terribly racist to begin with, and that portrayal will only get more awkward with time. There’s no way around that, though there are ways to soften the blow. On one extreme, the filmmakers could try to cast actual Native American actors and be as rigidly respectful as possible (see: The 2003 Peter Pan), which sacrifices a bit of the gorgeous imagery and pioneering spirit that made the story a classic to begin with. On the other extreme, the filmmakers could remove the Indians altogether (see: Hook) and sacrifice a huge part of Neverland. Or maybe the filmmakers could go full steam ahead and embrace the content as it is, cultural sensitivity be damned (see: The Disney animated film).
(Side note: I very strongly recommend Elaine Tipping’s excellent ongoing webcomic adaptation, which depicts the Indians as a tribe of badass Pacific Islanders.)
So what do Wright and company do? Well… it’s ambiguous. They’re only mentioned as a vague sort of “tribal people” who act as a noble, secretive, spiritual people in contrast with the loud, mechanized barbarians in the pirate horde. So they pretty much sit on their asses all day and act in accordance with The Prophecy, which means that they only do whatever the plot tells them to in the moment.
Oh, and they explode into colorful clouds of dust when they die. Because why the hell not?
But this brings me to the main reason why I didn’t really mind the Indians in this movie: At least they brought some color to the film. Seriously, aside from the Indians (and the fairies, who don’t show up until the climax), there is practically zero color in this movie. Wartime London is of course bleached out, ditto for the pirate ships and the mines, the forests and caves are all dark, and that’s pretty much everywhere else in the film. Couple that with native animals that look like they were rendered with CGI software from the mid-90s, not to mention some laughably bad effects on the flying sequences, and you’ve got a Neverland that looks pathetically ugly.
Neverland shouldn’t be ugly. It’s a fairy tale paradise. It should never look ugly. How do you fuck that up? Hell, this movie was supposed to be directed by the guy who brought fairy tale imagery to a story about a teenaged assassin, and adapted Anna Karenina with a kind of Moulin Rouge! motif. Where on God’s forsaken Earth was that Joe Wright when we needed him?!
Just in case I haven’t made this abundantly clear, the screenplay is a terrible joke. Every exposition dump and every “plot twist” comes perfectly on time, whether the circumstances make any lick of sense or not. The dialogue is hackneyed and the character development is nonexistent, usually because the characters simply do whatever the plot needs them to in the moment. And once again, there’s the simple fact that the only reason why Peter is our main character is because everybody says he is. Because of that damned stupid lazy fucking Prophecy. I wish I could spoil the whole movie and go into detail about all the various ways that the filmmakers wantonly abuse the imagery of the source material, but we’d be here all night and that blood vessel is acting up again.
As for the actors, may God have mercy on their souls. There is no hint of nuance to be found anywhere, in any of the performances. Hugh Jackman is by far the worst offender, possibly as revenge for denying him that Oscar for Les Miserables and making him play Wolverine for 15 years straight. I have no idea what he was doing here, but it sure wasn’t acting. Ditto for Garrett Hedlund, who acts to the cheap seats in lieu of the charisma this role so badly needed. At least Rooney Mara is putting in some kind of effort, but it’s only enough to be bland. Newcomer Levi Miller might have made for a halfway-decent Peter, if only he had a consistent development arc that didn’t go this way and that to suit the needs of the plot. As for Amanda Seyfried and Cara Delevingne, I couldn’t even tell you why they were in this film to begin with.
Pan is aggressively bad. It’s outrageously bad. The action scenes are wretched, the visuals are atrocious, the acting and score have no clue of what subtlety is, and the script is one of the worst hack jobs I’ve seen in a very long time. This movie was put together with absolutely no effort of any kind, it shows no love for the source material, and it shows no respect for its audience. If you see this movie, you will get nothing but hate. From the very moment you see Peter’s mother slinking around London like a goddamn ninja to personally deliver her son to the orphanage, you know that you will get nothing for your time and money but 111 minutes of a middle finger pointed right toward your face.
FUCK. THIS. MOVIE.