While Tim Burton and Kenneth Branagh might seem like obvious choices to wrangle live action films from age-old fairy tales, Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) presents something of a gamble. Despite plenty of period experience, and the excellent Hanna, he had never played in much of a fantastical toy box before Pan. We’re happy to report, then, that this creative curveball has paid off in spades.
Wright’s experience with historical characters and their emotional lives has taught him valuable lessons in character development. He uses this skillset to anchor Pan in the personal experiences of Peter – here played by impressive youngster Levi Miller.
To achieve this, Wright winds the established Peter Pan story all the way back to the night that the boy who would never grow old was left on the doorstep of the Lambert Home For Boys. Wright floats us into Peter’s world via loving and lingering shots of the 1940s London skyline, shot in a muted – almost black and white – colour pallet. Make no mistake – even before we reach Neverland, this is a beautiful film.
In the boys’ home, we’re given a welcome slow-paced introduction to Peter via his friendship with his fellow orphan Nibs (Lewis MacDougall). They sneak about the orphanage, mocking the panto villain dinner ladies and yearning for an elusive slice of bacon. This is the time of World War II rationing, after all. This charming beginning encourages emotional investment in Peter, ensuring that you like this endlessly optimistic lad before he’s ripped him from his ordinary life altogether.
Because, as it turns out, the orphanage staff are more than just nasty – they’re actually outright evil, turning a deliberate blind eye as the pirates of Neverland acrobatically kidnap children from their beds. This sequence is fun – and surprisingly tense – but what you’ll really remember is what comes next.
That would be the pirates’ escape from London – arguably Pan’s first truly great scene. This is a spectacle that demands big screen viewing, as pirate ships tussle with Spitfires while attempting to escape the Blitz-torn capital unscathed. It’s frenetic, it’s simple, it’s the first of many unforgettable visuals that Pan has to offer.
Indeed, this is widescreen filmmaking, and not just in terms of backdrop. You’d need a long lens to capture the ginormous performance of Hugh Jackman, who is utterly scene-stealing as Blackbeard, the wiry but larger-than-life villain of the piece. He’s equal parts wacky Captain Jack Sparrow-alike and washed-out drug baron, in the best possible way.
It’s not narcotics he’s hooked on, though, but fairy dust (or ‘Pixum,’ as Adheel Akhtar’s comic relief Mr. Smee calls it). He has his army of orphans digging for it in a mine, and that’s where Peter meets not-yet-captain James Hook, Pan’s surprisingly loveable swashbuckling hero.
Played to a tee by Gerrett Hedlund, this incarnation of Hook has clearly been inspired by certain iconic Harrison Ford performances. Having spent an unspecified number of years digging in Blackbeard’s Pixum mine, Hook has something of a grumpy swagger to him, and – seeing a chance to escape when Peter’s gravity-defying abilities present themselves – reluctantly agrees to team up with his future nemesis.
Together, they embark on a quest to escape the grasp of Blackbeard. A few fun chase scenes later, Hedlund’s cowboy-hat-wearing Hook is thrown into a memorable battle in order to prove himself to the vibrantly coloured tribes-people of Neverland. The fight takes place on an unwieldy trampoline (an inventive duelling ground that stirred memories of Beyond Thunderdome in this writer), but Hedlund still manages to showcase his impressive chops as a grumbling anti-hero in the vein of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.
Like Han, Hook finds himself drawn to a member of local royalty who convinces him to stay and join the fight, not just to escape and save his own skin. Said royalty would be Rooney Mara’s Tiger Lily, a character with a wardrobe that even Noel Edmonds would find garish. Although she’s not quite so developed as Hook and Peter (she turns up much later, to be fair to her), Mara turns Tiger Lily into a fierce warrior with admirable axe-lobbing skills and something of a soft side, too. If there’s a sequel, this is one character we’d really like to see more of.
When this central trio is finally brought together – Wright really does take his time to put the pieces into place – their collective quest ratchets up a notch. Answers regarding Peter’s past and the race towards the motherload stash of Pixum are what we’re after as we enter the final act, which is where Pan sadly wobbles a little.
There’s a sense here, that – having treated us to drawn-out character arcs and a slue of beautiful vistas – Wright and Warner Bros. may have rushed the ending a little. The final showdown between pirates and Peter’s gang is a little hard-to-follow, and there’s a sense that the CGI budget may have been running low at this stage. After all the stunning scenery of the film’s main chunk, we’re left to see the cast run around on a green screen in the majority of the third act.
This sense of distance between the characters and their environments lessens the emotional impact somewhat, and when big revelations do come, we’ve been a little too distracted by the uninspiring action to really feel that we care anymore.
However, for the most part, Pan is still one of the best family adventure films in recent years. Third act faux pas aside, there’s tremendous fun and some top-notch performances to be enjoyed here. We’ll certainly watch Levi Miller’s career with great interest. He’s immensely likeable as Peter, and you’ll be rooting for him all the way.
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