It escapes me now which holiday it was but while growing up, there was one station that would play the Mary Martin version of Peter Pan every year, and every year my mother would glow with delight that it was on—as if she had not seen it since she was 12-years-old. Wanting to bask in the glow of her joy, I’d sit and watch it with her, not really understanding what I was seeing.
Over the years, the theme of J.M. Barrie’s classic Pan tale seemed to twist itself from a warning about the pitfalls of refusing to grow up to the dream that we all should hold on to our inner-child. Yes, that certainly was the point but it went much deeper than that. In this new “prequel” called Pan, the message seems to continue to lose ground.
While a large portion of the new yarn is brand new and fresh, a good deal of the story was actually part of the original Pan universe. The character of Tiger Lily and Pan’s daring rescue of the native princess was indeed written long ago. Back then, however, he was saving her from Captain Hook and not aided by him. Nor did these eternal arch-nemeses once make a wonder pair doing battle against the evil Blackbeard.
More than trying to create an interesting twist to keep fans entertained, the new Pan seems to gestate itself in anticipation for more sequels and for (presumably) more money. I don’t want to skip straight to the end so early on in my thoughts, but adding Blackbeard, and having Pan and Hook fight side-by-side, really only serves the purposes of Pan 2: Rise of the Hook (Pan 2: Rise of the Hook, Copyright Matthew Schuchman, Den Of Geek US 2015 ©).
Director Joe Wright certainly has juggled through a strange variety of genres in the past. Period pieces and slow burning action thrillers do have a yawning distance drawn between them; and while his audaciously stylized rendition of Anna Karenina wafted on an air of fantasy at times, I never really saw this type of picture in his future. Dramatically he is a sound leader, but the design and over wrought candy-esque visuals of the film are more sore than soaring.
This bright, washed over, and digital image that seems to illustrate a world of wonder to people today doesn’t really have a spark of the fantastic here, which should be a prerequisite for this kind of story. A tiny, motorized model of Jonathan Pryce flying through the slow-motion filmed dry ice clouds of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil? now that is awe-inspiring. Maybe I have become the bitter old Captain Hook here, shaking my stainless steel claw at the younger generation and their fancy gadgets, but the inventive and downright MacGyver-like effects of the 1980s trump today’s technical advancements when it comes to a sense of wonder.
Joe Wright once appeared above these glossy-eyed effects. But not anymore.
There has been much made in the press about Pan also casting white actors in roles that were classically written as Native Americans, but there is something even more disturbing in this film. Despite Pan ostensibly not being a musical, there is a moment where Blackbeard suddenly bursts out into a jaw-dropping rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I imagined that all other complaints about the film went flying out the window.
More than any issue, Pan cannot seem to keep itself from painfully reminding its audience that the characters are somehow aware they are there to “entertain” you. Maybe it was thought of as a sly call back to the broken fourth wall of the stage where Peter would ask audience members, or views at home watching on TV, to clap if they believed in fairies. Maybe. Yet subtle winks to the audience, alerting them of some un-clever comedic situations, work more as daggers to the brain here, reminding us that Hollywood thinks we’re too dimwitted to pick up on a joke so large that it could choke a blue whale.
I don’t want to be overly mean to Peter Pan and his crew though. The movie’s performances are not bad by any means. Newcomer Levi Miller as the titular Pan holds his own against the grizzled vets and the hot young talent of today, but it’s all for naught really when surrounded by tasteless backdrops of an apparent mystical paradise. Acting can save a smaller picture from obscurity but can only truly be obscured by the seemingly pornographic overlay of big budget action and adventure. Here, the acting oddly sits in a paradox, as one of the lost boys in a world of poppy glamour.
Pan is not the bottom of the barrel when you get down to it but it’s just another link in the chain of stories that gain nothing from pumping up their backstories other than the girth in someone else’s wallet. All the dazzle and fantasy of my Mother’s Peter Pan is gone, and in its place stands a gaudy monument of misplaced ideas and poorly chosen roads.
No one is looking for the gritty Pan reboot where we learn Hook really lost his hand when Peter cut it off in a rage caused by a fairy dust overdose, but maybe it’s time for this story to finally grow up just a little.