An inexcusably wretched excrescence, and perhaps a lesson to those who think Disney makes it look easy, refashioning fairy tales for undiscerning young audiences ready and waiting to lap them up. Pan, or rather Pan: Origins, would, I think it’s safe to say, emphatically not meet with JM Barrie’s approval. It’s a listless, drama-free mess, smeared with a muddy, ugly, “realist” aesthetic that someone hunched at a Hollywood editing desk presumably believe audiences can’t get enough of. Worst of all, Pan lacks any sense of wonder, magic, and most importantly, fun.
Ironically, Hanna, director Joe Wright’s last-but-one film, offered an engaging, invigorating modern fairy tale, one that didn’t need to spell everything out, but had it all right there in the design and character tensions. Here, every element seems to be a reaction against something, a strategic attempt to anticipate the predominate trend yet fatally misunderstanding that formula at the expense of invention will eventually see you come a cropper.
Pan finds Warner Bros seduced by the prospect of a Harry Potter-esque, sequel-spinning, chosen-one origins tale, as a transposed Oliver Twist ragamuffin is transported from a blitz besieged orphanage to a particularly grim Neverland (wartime London is sketched out with more sense of artistry; at least there’s a degree generic nostalgia involved). Despite occupying dubious terrain to start with – the last couple of Pans haven’t exactly set the world on fire, and in particular, Spielberg’s messing with the myth provoked critical derision – screenwriter Jason Fuchs has gone ahead with his own botched vision of a pre-Wendy era, when “friends began as enemies and enemies as friends”.
Perhaps he saw Black Sails, leading to a lazy speculation over what happened hitherto in anothermuch-loved children’s piratical tale. Whatever hooked him, he’s equipped with none of the inspiration or resources to fashion anything halfway decent. Pan and Hook become friends, enslaved by Blackbeard…
So Blackbeard is essentially in the Hook role, and Hook is essentially Han Solo. With Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara; the casting controversy pales in comparison to the general atrocity of the picture) as the Princess Leia type, and Pan as Luke. It’s all very tiresome, and worst of all tedious (at one point, Hook departs at a crucial moment, only to return in his flying ship to save the day). Digesting all that, we ought to be very afraid for Wonder Woman’s chances of being less than horrible (on which Fuchs gets sole screenwriting credit).
You might have expected Hugh Jackman, a reliable, charismatic actor, to get to grips with Hook Blackbeard, but aside from some notable facial appliances and costuming, he flourishes entirely forgettable ham. Say what you like about Hook, but Dustin Hoffman’s performance was note-perfect. And funny. Blackbeard tries to be funny, or Jackman does, but the screenplay is wit-bereft.
To be fair to Hedlund, he’s reasonable as the roguish hero, and Rooney Mara has down the stern-but-charmed monarch thing (she’s also kick-ass, because no screenwriter worthless of their salt doesn’t turn every female lead into a Buffy clone), but he bears no resemblance to the kind of character – or actor – who could one day pull off the villain role (which is surely the intent, had this franchise non-starter not hit the rocks). Ezra Miller isn’t quite bad, but he hasn’t got what he needs for lead duties; the poor lad’s asked to take too many emotional turns, and his decidedly non-scruff, RP accent leaks through quite frequently.
Fuchs takes the paraphernalia of the characters and makes the most uninventive meal of it; Pan is the stuff of a prophecy, and wears pan pipes round his neck as a banal signpost for why he is called what he is called. Blackbeard, in the most mundane and literal grounding of the fantastic, is mining pixie dust to keep himself young.
Every choice Joe Wright makes as a director is ham-fisted, so he’s nothing if not consistent. There have been ardent critics of his acumen in the past, notably his self-conscious take on Anna Karenina, but I unreservedly liked both Pride and Prejudice and Hanna. This is enough to give anyone pause, however. His World War II renders a tiresome steampunk fantasy of spitfires attack a flying sailing ship. It’s the sort of visual that might once have been evocative, but is now commonplace, the kind of torrid concoction Steven Moffat would slaver across one of his Doctor Who Christmas specials.
There’s also a feeling that Wright has been watching Gilliam, yet completely misunderstand his genius. In particular, the ship in space, complete with constellations, and then the cartoonish neverbirds, evoke the Moon sequence from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but absent the humour, eccentricity, or stylistic temperament. the neverbirds are entirely out of place, not least in terms of the effects failing to marry with the visual tone (and generally, for such an expensive film, Pan’s seams show very frequently).
When Peter arrives in Neverland, we’re greeted by a now infamous rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit, included because it seemed like a good idea to Wright at the time (we’re also treated to the Ramones’ Bliztkrieg Pop). The issue isn’t that its anachronistic, it’s that its entirely lethargic, lacking spark or brio, much like the barren – but expensively so – colour palette. John Powell’s score is entirely awful, attempting to evoke the mood of family romps of yesteryear – ironically, given the adult pop – but instead importing an “Isn’t this a wondrous lark?” inertia that proves fatal. It really is as if Wright is trying to make a panto: a $150m panto.
There are the usual escapes and captures, and the climax is a succession of shipboard fights and giant glowing crystals, lacking a modicum of excitement. Pan must prove his chosen status, but Miller’s ill-equipped to deliver (particularly in the reunion with the ma he has no memory of, which also appears to provide the closure he surely shouldn’t have in order to decide not to grow up). Along the way, the attempts at knowing, post-modern humour are sadly to be expected, complete with allusions to what is to come. Inevitably, they further serve to divest this telling of any awe at all (“Why wouldn’t there be a secret map to a magic kingdom?”)
Is there anything good here? Kathy Burke makes a suitably gruesome nun, and a sequence where Hook fights Tinkerbell’s chosen warrior at least has a certain knockabout energy, but such morsels are few and far between. Disney need not worry that this version of Peter Pan may undermine their plans for a live-action retelling, but they maybe should be given pause that the faithful-but-expensive 2003 adaptation also failed to connect with audiences.