ADVANCE MOVIE REVIEW: Pan
"PAN"-- 1 STAR
Churning along with the advent of improved CGI and digital filmmaking, this fashionable 21st century movie trend of live-action remakes to classic fairy tales has been running its course in a negative direction for years. It doesn't matter who's making them, be it Walt Disney Pictures, Warner Brothers, or whomever. The results are almost always too bloated, too frenetic, and charmless in every way. This very writer has painted that disappointing picture in reviews of "Oz the Great and Powerful" and "Jack the Giant Slayer" over the years. We've swallowed two different "Snow White" takes and watched Disney revise and sully their own perfect animated history with revisionist takes on "Alice in Wonderland," "Maleficent," and "Cinderella." Previously illuminating classics have been reduced to purposeless roller coaster rides as films. There may not be a more blunt or inglorious example of this purposelessness than "Pan," opening in theaters this week.
Written by Jason Fuchs, one of the screenwriters of the fourth "Ice Age" movie, "Ice Age: Continental Drift" (that ought to tell you something right there), "Pan" attempts to turn the pages back before J.M. Barrie's 1904 stage invention of "Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" and tell a fictional origin story of Peter Pan himself. Shifting the timeline up to the years spanning World War II, Peter's nameless mother (a gauzy cameo by Amanda Seyfried) leaves her infant son Peter on the steps of a Kensington Gardens orphanage with only a letter and a symbolic pan pipe necklace. Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) grows to become a pre-teen in the oppressive orphanage during the Blitz of London, hoping that one day his mother will come back for him. His life changes when creepy pirates on a flying galleon descend on London amid German Luftwaffe and pluck Peter and other orphans that no one will miss to the fabled Neverland.
Dazzled by the starry flight and the company of outlandish pirates, Peter's thrill is short-lived when he and the other orphans were brought to Neverland to be put to work on a vast mining project run by the despotic Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, relishing villainy). As it turns out, the wig-wearing and Nirvana-rocking pirate (yes, that Nirvana) has all but stomped out the embattled resistance from the magical fairies and the tribal Piccaninny natives that once happily filled Neverland. Blackbeard's mining seeks to hoard the remaining mineral form of pixie dust from the land with no care for human cost.
The somewhat headstrong Peter defies Blackbeard's rule and shows signs of being the prophetic flying warrior that is destined to kill Blackbeard. Seeing an opportunity to get his own freedom, fellow miner and former orphan James Hook ("Tron: Legacy" star Garret Hedlund) orchestrates a daring escape to help Peter try to find his mother and get answers. With the lowly pencil-pusher Smee (British actor Adeel Akhtar) tagging along, Peter and Hook are captured by Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") of the tribal warriors while Blackbeard and his forces are in hot pursuit as well.
As you will notice, "Pan" occupies a very different kind of Neverland that exists long before the chipper adventures of Tinker Bell, Wendy, John, Michael, and The Lost Boys have their adventure. Other than a brief name drop and microscopic appearance from an action-less Tinker Bell, none of those familiar seeds of the Peter Pan we know and love are planted by this film. All we are left to observe are the imagined initial meetings between Tiger Lilly, James Hook, Smee, and Peter that are supposed to portend and mean something down the road. Instead, for the most part, there is no gravity to these encounters. They feel like that weak handshake-and-a-what's-up-nod when Qui-gon Jinn introduces Obi-Wan Kenobi to Anakin Skywaker in "Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace" (1:25 mark of the trailer). A terrible batch of casting and acting doesn't help with the lack of weight.
Though he tries, Levi Miller does not have the sprightly charisma and haughty personality that will make you believe you are watching the emerging Peter Pan. Would it kill the kid to smile instead of scowl once he puts his hero pants on? There's no hint of the future mischief or boastfulness to always stay young. Rooney Mara is, well, Rooney Mara, vacant and impassive as ever. Without a Wendy or a Tinker Bell, her empty Tiger Lilly was your one shot at a worthwhile female lead.
Likewise, "Paper Towns" starlet Cara Delevingne has zero lines or resonance playing the famed Neverland mermaids. Akhtar's Smee is a smeared and forgettable ethic stereotype. Worse of all is the indiscernible kind of drawl or personality Garrett Hedlund was going for as James Hook. His peculiar line readings feel as stunted and overemphasized as those of Crispin Glover in "Back to the Future." Like the lack of character foundation for Peter Pan, there is no vibe of scoundrel or panache that would ever lead you to believe that Hedlund's character will grow to become the famed Captain Hook. The only person clearly having fun is Hugh Jackman. He puts 110% into playing the villain of decadence and venom. He can't help that he's saddled with terrible material.
With a tangent timeline, the odd mining of pixie dust, unformed answers to origins, the whitewashed casting of natives, and the oddly mixed nods to modern-ish music, "Pan" is an obscure mess that is all over the place. The man behind this unmitigated disaster is director Joe Wright of "Anna Karenina" and "Atonement" fame. True to his usual signature artistry, Wright pours everything he can into big-budget production value. The film's price tag is north of $150 million and it shows. The CGI-assisted production design and art direction, zany costumes, creative visual effects, and the swooping camera shots are all very lavish, but are pounded to death by John Powell's unrelenting composition (which apparently replaced a more subdued musical score from frequent Wright collaborator and Academy Award winner Dario Marianelli). Without coherence, any beauty is hollow due to the poor execution of storytelling, tone, and acting.
"Pan" reeks of too many ideas being thrown into the movie pitch blender for the sake of more confectionery ingredients. This is five pounds of sugar in a one-pound bag. By the time two pirate ships are flying through an endless cavern of crystalline stalactites and stalagmites of pixie dust and overrun by locust-like swarm of faceless fairies, "Pan" was off the deep end more than it already was at the start.
Like all of the failed live-action fairy tale remakes, the two largest missing components are restraint and charm. The timeless stories being attempted by films like "Pan" have no idea how to let a good narrative flow build or a poignant moment breathe before stepping to the next unrelenting set piece. The original written sources of these films have that restraint and quality. Blasts of action and sound have replaced subtle imagery and brevity. Furthermore, just as documented in "Oz the Great and Powerful," "Pan" lacks any and all charm to enamor the audience into what made Barrie's tale lovable and enchanting. Charm is replaced by dissonance and pandering.
No kid born this century, the film's target audience, is going to get or understand this movie's attempts at new ground and "steampunk" artistry. There is no wonder or sense of magic. Any hint here or there, like the initial arrival into Neverland, which should be jaw-dropping, is fleeting. By being a deep prequel that doesn't come close to bridging towards familiar canon, no kid is going to know where to leap in all of this revisionist history. They're not going to get the music references to Nirvana and The Ramones. This isn't "A Knight's Tale" where a dash of stadium rock actually fit the athletic tone of the film. Here, it falls on deaf ears.
Moreover, the orphan story has been done to death in better classics. Leave that to "Oliver Twist" and "Annie." Today's kids might be wowed by the madcap visual effects, but enjoy trying to gloss over and justify why people turn into puffs of colored dust when they are shot and killed (some execution-style). No Peter Pan film or interpretation should have a body count. Good luck trying to explain the cicada-like fairies that are relegated to the sidelines of this new mythology rather than sprites of energy and fun that supply the magic. These are just a handful of of many flaws from Wright's take on Peter Pan.
Everything about "Pan" is too dark and ill-defined to resonate, dazzle, or enchant. Even Steven Spielberg's misaligned and shameless popcorn flick "Hook" from 1991 had more majesty and wonder in single scenes like this than anything in "Pan." Skip "Pan" and stick with "Hook" and "Finding Neverland" to truly move your heart and imagination. With maniacal action, weak characterization, overacting, glazed-over violence, and an onslaught of noise, "Pan" is an incoherent mess that dives to near the bottom of all live-action fairy tale films.
Sadly, the revisionist carnival isn't stopping. The website has begged for the trend to stop in "New Year's Resolutions for the Movie Industry" editorials in 2013, 2014, and 2015. For as many superhero movies coming down the pipeline, live-action fairy tales are just as numerous. Walt Disney Pictures alone has the sequel "Alice Through the Looking Glass," John Favreau's "The Jungle Book," and a "Pete's Dragon" remake all packed into 2016 with the hallowed ground of "Beauty on the Beast" prepping for 2017. Somebody leave these classics alone and make it stop.
LESSON #1: DON'T BRING A FOOT TO A GUN FIGHT-- Blackbeard and his pirates are armed to the teeth with cannons, pistols, and muskets while the Piccaninny tribe appears to fight with martial arts, trampolines, and small weapons that never hit anyone with purpose. They look like they're playing tag while getting dispatched easily. That's never going to go well (and it doesn't). How did they even make it this long? Better call more locusts, err, fairies.
LESSON #2: SELF DOUBT IS A COSTLY CHARACTER FLAW-- "Pan" is a film trying to be the building blocks that elevate an orphan dreamer into a heroic leader. Doubt is the largest mental obstacle in Peter's way to achieving his destiny. Getting over his parental loss is the second highest one. The character arc in this film is all about Peter getting past those doubts. By going with that storytelling route, Wright's "Pan" borrows and settles for the self-doubting, pre-hero act that we've seen done better ("Batman Begins" and "Spider-Man") and worse ("Green Lantern" and back to "Spider-Man") in other adventure characters.