A Truly Magical Disappointment of a Film
The best way to describe the experience of watching this film is to rely on an analogy using The Great British Bake Off (or another cooking/baking show of your preference). Have you ever watched GBBO and observed someone producing a glorious looking cake that everyone talks about, so decide to have a go yourself? So you include all the ingredients they used; having added them at the same time and the same way, you then place it in the oven. However, when you open the oven to take out the cake you made it looks nothing like the cake you saw on the show. In fact your cake looks flat, plain and tastes nowhere as good as the cake appeared on TV. Now – replace the ‘you’ with ‘the production team of Pan’; the ingredients being the script, mise-en-scene, cast etc and the cake with Pan. That is what watching this film is like. Everything is there. It should work. It’s worked for so many other people. It just doesn’t work here.
It’s the middle of World War Two. Peter (Levi Miller) was abandoned by his mother (Amanda Seyfried) when he was only a baby. Left on the door steps of an orphanage he has lived his entire life there. It is all he knows. The orphanage is managed by a tyrannical nun (Kathy Burke) who Peter suspects is making and hoarding a profit, leaving the boys in her charge eating gruel and wearing rags. Peter and his sidekick decide to investigate, and find a hoard both of food and gold. He also finds his personal record, including a letter from his mother who promises they’ll meet again, ‘In this world or another.’ They are found and punished; with Mother Superior ripping the note into pieces. Later that night they find out where the gold has come from, when a pirate ship comes to forcibly collect the young boys. After a scuffle with some fighter aircrafts, the pirate ship crosses the barriers of time and space to arrive in Neverland. In Neverland he will find fun and friendships, in the form of James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), and together they will have to rise against the monstrous regime of Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Peter will discover his destiny and begin to become the future legend that is Peter Pan.
That plot summary makes the film sound exciting, right? That is ultimately what makes the film so disappointing, on paper it sounds good and on screen it looks good yet it doesn’t quite land. The audience are left watching sequences of increasing splendour and yet will remain impassive and disengaged with the events. The film becomes a case study in a failed attempt at Magical Realism. Upon analysis, there are a plethora of reasons as to why this is the case, though I shall just focus on the main two.
Cast: The cast were truly ill-advised on how to portray their characters. Jackman, as Blackbeard, spends all of his screen time dialled up to 11. He’s almost like a pantomime dame chewing at the scenery. In a way this makes sense, as the film attempts to pitch an overly theatrical approach, yet it does little favours for Jackman who we have seen far better in so much more. If only he had some quieter moments, allowing for development of beats and nuances, it would have made for a more interesting performance. If acting is all about finding a balance between lights and shades, Jackman’s acting here is so bright it’ll blind. Then we’ve got Hedlund as Hook, played as a Southern gent cowboy-type. The clear intent was to make him an endearing character, shown to care about his friends and loyalties and make the audience wonder how he and Peter became such great enemies later on. It would have been a nice enough take on the character if Hedlund did not spend 2/3 of his lines hunched over, squinting them and barking them at his fellow cast. We get it, you’re stereotypically Southern – just please stop shouting! Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily starts high then gradually disappoints. She’s set up to be a great warrior, but little of this is actually shown. When announced that she was starring in this many were surprised, as Mara’s roles utilise her maudlin persona to great effect. The result in Pan is that she spends the entire film looking as if she doesn’t really want to be there. Which is hardly surprising considering how much source material the sequences with her and her tribe will provide for critics and theorists of cultural appropriation will provide. The only good thing to say about the film is that 13-year-old Levi Miller is a promising new talent who does a great job of carrying the heavy burden of this film.
Script: The need for prequels is a matter of personal opinion. The need for a decent script in prequel is not. This review should serve as a warning to those who want to write a prequel – do not do as this film does. It’s all fine and dandy to include references to the pre-existing film, cheeky lines acknowledging past references for the audience which hint at future inevitable events for the characters. But please, for the love of God, do not write them like they are in the screenplay for Pan. There are so many here, which are shoehorned in so poorly and recited by the actors so stiffly that I genuinely suspect they were written in the actual script like this:
Tiger Lily: What? Are you scared of CROCODILES?
Hook: NO! Now excuse me while I stick my HAND in the CROCODILE-INFESTED WATER.
Peter: Great. Now we’re lost!
Hook: Yes. We’re LOST BOYS!
Peter: Well we better think HAPPY THOUGHTS.
Peter: We’ll always be FRIENDS won’t we Hook?
Hook: Of course! What could ever happen to CHANGE that?
Mother: You’re my Peter. My PETER PAN.
Now, I may not have used exact phrasing there (I think my brain has tried to delete some of the film in a type of self-protection manoeuvre) but those references are as subtle stated as they are above. In fact, the only way they could have been made less subtle is by having the cast recite them turning to the camera with a raised eyebrow and nudging with their elbow. The intention of including these lines (though perhaps not in a manner as poorly as done here) is to establish a clear link between this film and the far far far superior 1953 animation and the 1911 novel. However, this has a counteractive effect, reminding the audience of how much they love either of the original products. Save the money of a cinema ticket and dig out your copy of the book or film.
This leads us to an ultimate conclusion, was this film really necessary? I’ve written in past reviews (Ant-Man and Fantastic Four are the first two that spring to mind) about the difficulties of origin stories. Did we really need to know what made Peter Pan into the Peter Pan? If they really thought people would care about the backstory between Hook and Pan why not show it instead of ending the movie with a heavy-handed sequence that signposted for a sequel – which may not be so inevitable considering Pan has royally bombed at the box office. To be so over-dependent on continuing the story on, instead of giving a satisfying if albeit temporary conclusion, is lazy storytelling.
This film overestimates how good or necessary it is. It manages to make the magical mundane and dreary – an unforgivable crime of cinema.