There’s a moment early on in Pan that completely and utterly defines exactly what this looney little film is going for. Peter arrives in Neverland, a place we’ve seen a million and one times, captured by pirates. When they make it to the slave camp, large Hans Zimmer-like drums start to bang, and the pirates start to sing. “Hello…hello…hello…hello.” “Wait a minute, is that Nirvana?” says the baffled audience to which Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard says “oh well, whatever, never mind.” It’s a moment of such audacious creativity that even though it doesn’t entirely work, it entertains for even existing at all. Yes, in some ways this is the strange rock opera version of Peter Pan. In most ways that’s about as strange as it sounds, but man does it certainly have it’s moments.
This version opens in World War 2, with an orphaned Peter Pan (Levi Miller) living in what can only be described as an orphanage so odd that it would be put out of business in five minutes in the real world. Anyway, fantasy movie, let’s not harp on the details. One night, a group of pirates repel though the ceiling, and kidnap Peter on their flying boat. Peter finds himself in Neverland after a rather cosmic trip, and is forced by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), the pirate leader, to mine for rare fairy dust. It’s in these very mines that he meets James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a charismatic rouge who vows to help him, and the two of them ultimately get tied up with a group of natives lead by Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara) who claim that Peter is the key to their uprising against the pirates.
If nothing else, classically hit or miss director Joe Wright should be praised for going absolutely hog wild with his vision for this thing. On a strictly visual level, Pan is actually a pretty beautiful movie. Sure, it’s a bit odd to see such a steampunk infused version of Neverland, but the fantastic visual designs really bring it to life. Even in the moments where you can practically see the green screen behind the actors, the backdrops look like paintings out of a really strange Peter Pan art-book, which ensures there’s at least something interesting to look at in every shot. With that said, there are a few creature designs and effects that just flat out miss. Most glaringly, there are a group of jungle birds that look like they were rendered on the first Macintosh, their terrifying Adobe Illustrator aimed directly at the camera in 3D. It’s extremely over-produced and incredibly busy, but in a strange way, it’s charming.
Where the film starts to fall apart is in it’s performances, which are all earnestly delivered but way over-directed. Exemplifying this most is Hedlund, who spends the film practically winking directly at the camera as he swaggers in his Walter Cronkite meets Bill Cosby voice. Hook is made to be something of a Han Solo figure here, and while Hedlund’s sheer over the top energy makes it work to an extent, it’s just way over done and rarely gets a change to dial back. He does have a decent amount of chemistry with Miller’s Peter, the young actor proving to be surpassingly charismatic. He’s easy to like, even if he does bring up his lost mother at absolutely every possible opportunity, which is a bit grating. Mara gives us a decent Tiger Lilly despite some egregious mis-casting that just makes her whole attire laughable. Meanwhile, Jackman throws himself completely into the elaborately designed Blackbeard who looks like the owner of a 1930s pirate themed sex club. Screaming almost every line at the top of his lungs, it’s so clear that he’s trying to bring some energy out of this character. Unfortunately, he’s so thinly written that he just comes off a bit grating. None of these characters have the dimension and inner darkness that would really make their over the top delivery work. There’s no hint to Hook’s inner darkness, Blackbeard is a one dimensional snarling villain, and Tiger Lilly is just polite. It’s hard to blame any of these actors for how their performances turned out. They’re all trying as hard as they can to make this work. It all comes down to Wright, who totally mis-calculated the level of cartoon energy these characters needed to become iconic.
The only moments where this film really sings (besides the moments where it literally does) are the action sequences. Certain moments here feel like Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean took some fairly dust together. There’s so much energy in the direction that these often extended scenes feel like elaborate circus performances with characters jumping, falling, and flying all around the screen. They’re filmed in such sweeping fashion that you can clearly make out what’s going on, and there are a few moments that just might drop jaws. The opening battle in particular is just sheer goofy madness, with fighter planes attempting to take down the flying pirate ship. Even when these scenes are misfiring, they’re just so elaborate and operatic that they at least serve as eye candy.
Perhaps the biggest problem with ‘Pan’ is just that it needed a little darkness to offset how whimsical it is. There are rarely any moments where these characters really feel like people so much as props in Joe Wright’s action figure session, and that’s a shame because this movie really does almost work. There are aspects that are so crazy that they’re brilliant, and others that are so mad that they’ll make you mad. If it were just reigned into humanity a little bit more, we really could have had something here. As it stands, it’s an entertaining Jupiter Ascending-like misfire with a lot of shining moments, but just as many that make you wonder exactly how much fairy dust the writers were throwing on themselves in the room.