'Pan' Is a Big Sloppy Mess of WTF That Occasionally Stumbles Into Something Resembling Art
Whatever you’ve been thinking Pan would be, it’s not that. If you thought the trailer looked cool and fun in a flashy Spectacular Spectacular kind of way, know that it is neither cool nor fun. If you thought it looked it looked like another unnecessary retelling of an age-old story, it’s not really that either. If you thought it was going to be a huge steaming mess of a two-hour turd— well, it is that. But only sometimes. (Like, a LOT of sometimes, but still.)
A major criticism that’s been lobbed at this movie from its first announcement was that we don’t NEED another Peter Pan movie. And no, of course we don’t. But as long as a story can be retold either exceptionally well (see the 2003 version, or at least Jason Isaac’s extraordinary Captain Hook) or differently than its ever been done before (Hook, Finding Neverland, Peter and the Starcatcher), we’re usually fine with it. Pan definitely does not achieve the former, but it at least attempts the latter. It strives to be Different with a capital D. It’s problem is just that it has no idea how it wants to do that. You might get the impression, watching this, that director Joe Wright and his producers had a big bag of Weird Ideas, and used them to play a blindfolded game of Pin the Weirdness on the Neverland. The result is a lot of big ideas— some of them great, many of them not at all— jammed into a mishmashed ball of WHAT AM I WATCHING. Like an oddly bewigged and shoulder-padded snaggle-toothed Hugh Jackman (playing Blackbeard) placed in front of a poorly greenscreened large-scale cliff wasteland backdrop, immediately bringing to mind a gilded gentleman Immortan Joe of Mad Max: Fury Road. Or the pirate past time of shouting menacing chanted renditions of anachronistic songs— first “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” then “Blitzkrieg Bop.” In theory, these are thematically pretty cool— Nirvana and the Ramones being great anthem symbols of lost boys and rebels— in practice, with their repeated choruses beaten into your minds, they end up making zero sense.
The story of Pan begins with orphan Peter being left on the doorstep of some very evil nuns. Skipping past the obligatory hero’s journey longing and pining, being convinced of his own specialness bits, twelve years later, during the London Blitz, those nuns are selling orphans to pirates. Thus, under the rule of Blackbeard the shoulder-padded pirate king, Peter (played by the serviceably wide-eyed Levi Miller) and his friends find themselves working the islan’s mines looking for Pixum or Pixanium or some other ridiculous-sounding fairy dust crystal thing I can’t be bothered to look up the actual name of because it’s really just the thinnest semblance of a plot by this point. Peter and his new friend Hook (but see, he’s not a regular Hook, he’s a cool Hook— think Young Indiana Jones meets… oh, nope, actually, it’s basically just Garrett Hedlund’s best Young Indy impression) bust out of there and again, by this point, plot isn’t so much a factor as the fact that it’s now time for Rooney Mara’s craft store headdress to show up and be the naysayer-turned-maternal figure the movie’s sole female character (outside of those earlier evil nuns) is destined to be.
Now, for a quick sidebar, let’s talk about Hook for just a second. This is obviously the story of how Peter became Pan, but I’m going to assume that many of you adult-type folks will find yourself more interested in learning how cool adventure guy Hook became mean old codfish Captain Hook. And look, this is going to be a spoiler (or really, maybe an anti-spoiler, since I’m telling you what doesn’t happen), but I don’t want any of you who decide to see this movie to leave after two hours as frustrated as I did, so I’m going to warn you now: That doesn’t happen. We never see it. No hints, no foreshadowing other than a fear of giant f*ck-off crocodiles. Peter and Hook bond, become friends, end the movie even better friends. They’re probably predicting a sequel, but that is some frustrating BULLSH*T to not even touch on.
Alright, backing up a moment for a slightly longer second sidebar: it would be weird if we didn’t take a quick moment to talk about Mara’s Tiger Lily and the rest of the Natives. It’s been the most talked-about element for months leading up to the movie’s release, and it DOES need to be discussed. If you haven’t read Joe Starr’s excellent piece on the subject, you should absolutely do so. Joe makes the case that the outrage over casting Rooney Mara, the whitest white girl you know, as Tiger Lily was (at least partially) misplaced. That given JM Barrie’s original horrifically offensive description of the Natives or “Red Indians,” and that by the nature of these characters, they are going to be zany, savage (a word that gets used a LOT in Pan), violent Others, they should in no way be depicted as Native Americans. (And hey, Neverland isn’t America. They can have different native peoples.) On this case, I completely agree with Joe’s point. But the larger issue (which he also discusses), is still valid. That the natives of Neverland had the opportunity to be whatever Joe Wright wanted them to be. And along those lines, he promised us a diverse cast for this movie. And yet, the entire cast is overwhelmingly white, with two prominent pirates played by actors of color, one chief with a few lines played by an Aboriginal Australian, and a whole lot of non-white Native extras. So no, Tiger Lily didn’t have to be— shouldn’t be, even— Native American. But when nearly every single one of your nonspeaking savage Natives are people of color, and their primary representative is a white woman, you are doing a terrible job of understanding privilege, racial bias, and general humanity.
Watching Pan, and marinating on it since, I know that I should hate it. I know that this is not a good movie. But I also know that it’s not meant for me. Parts of this movie would be very scary for young kids (if I’d seen it when I was little, the pirate’s orphan abductions would still haunt my dreams, I’m sure), but this movie is definitely meant for a child’s mind. As I was watching, I kept unconsciously making comparisons between this movie and Hook. That’s a film that many of us, I’m sure, consider a lifelong favorite. But if you didn’t see it as a child, and were instead introduced to it as an adult, you may see it differently. (Or so I’m told! I’m incapable of not viewing it through my 8-year-old eyes.) It has a cool premise, some fantastic moments, both exciting and touching, but it lacks a cohesion. Now, Pan obviously has nothing close to the magic of Robin Williams, but it does have a mostly talented cast, and enough heartfelt longing and fun fights (one on a trampoline immediately comes to mind) to capture a child’s interest. And while the discordant jumble of tone and ideas occasionally stumbles into a realm somewhat resembling something weird enough to be interesting— possibly even brilliant— it does feel like that is an accident when it happens. Still, that strange surrealism that so many of us grew up with, those oddities that challenged our sense of narrative and shaped our idea of entertainment as something outside the box— the Labyrinths and the NeverEnding Stories— that’s something that is largely lacking in children’s entertainment today. So yes, this movie is a mess, and no, it’s not skillful art, but it is something different. Both different interesting and different bad, but there’s so little made these days that is any sort of ‘different’ that it would be a shame to write this one off entirely.
Vivian Kane thinks the world in which ‘Pan’ takes place is beautiful in a mostly heightened realistic way. Which is why those stupid cartoon birds can f*ck right the hell off.
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