Pan (2015): Not So Down The Pan…
Joe Wright’s Pan bombed at the box office; in truth, there is much to like about it. Whilst it isn’t the classic Peter Pan and Wendy story, it has many J M Barrie elements within it. Pirates! Crocodiles! Tiger Lily and pirate battles. Iridescent mermaids, a hint of twinkly fairies.
More of an origin story, Peter Pan is literally a lost boy in a home full of lost boys — abandoned as a baby at a London orphanage. It’s World War Two, the nuns are mean with the rations and hide a feast (probably Blitz black market)… if you know where to find it. Bizarrely (which is never explained or mentioned again), the uncaring nuns are also, Charles Dickens like, apparently involved in child trafficking — selling or losing children to pirates, who then ‘upskill them as forced labour in a fairy dust mine enterprise. The nuns seem to be getting away with this trade in child labout unchecked — and are clearly defying the government/law as the children haven’t been evacuated to the countryside for safety. They should be shut down! Historical facts thrown away for dramatic impact; the exploited labour seems reasonably happy about it — they all sing a Nirvana song together! Blackbeard likes singing — he makes his pirate crew sing too!
The movie lacks the edge of Peter Pan and Wendy stage plays where the Lost Boys are actually looking for family, to not be exploited as enslaved labour/adult ‘wage slaves’ and in some sense to reconnect with society, having removed themselves from its restrictions, responsibilities, expectations and conventions.
Here too, familiar characters are not what, or who, you expect. Hook is a cowboy-like good guy — both hands, no hook and part Han Solo, part Indiana Jones, flirting away at Princess Tiger Lily. Blackbeard is the Neverland pirate overlord and seeker of eternal youth, rejuvenating daily through a beauty regime of mined fairy dust. Hugh Jackman is quite splendid as the dastardly pirate, full of swaggering King James I fashion flamboyance: a plumed despot. Smee is a vacillator, intent on saving his own skin at all times, rather than a key henchman alongside Blackbeard. Peter is learning to fly — only he’s scared of heights, so spends much more time falling off things. Blackbeard’s splendid chief henchman in place of Smee is Bishop, who has to put up with a lot — like cleavers through doors. There is Neverland, but not all the characters as anticipated — Peter’s mother is Blackbeard’s daughter? who fell in love with a fairy man (or faery); he became human for her, but on doing this, lost his immortality and could only live for a day. It was worth it — because true love and Peter. She then (somehow) could jump between worlds — dropping Peter off in London, then nipping back to Neverland to defend the fairy/faery realm and fight against Blackbeard (her father?) It’s all very Star Wars now; perhaps irresponsible or responsible parenting depending on your viewpoint?! So far no-one has walked the plank either!
There are some splendid bits — the crocodiles; the shimmering yet helpful mermaids who all look like Cara Delevingne; the pirate ships which look like World War Two barrage balloons and float rather than sail; Rooney Mara’s splendid fights with Hugh Jackman and her ‘will they-won’t they’ relationship with Hook; the champion trampolining bout.
Having escaped the mines, survived attack of the googly eyed puppet birds and been captured by an indigenous people, Peter Pan is revealed as the ‘chosen one’ who will learn to fly and sort everything out. This saves Hook from a fight to the death by trampolining! He, Tiger Lily and Hook set off to defend the fairy mine from Blackbeard — only they are captured by Blackbeard, following an attack on Tiger Lily’s homeland. Peter’s Panpipes pendant turns out to be the key to the door…leading to the fairy or faery realm and eternal youth.
Thrillingly Tiger Lily and Blackbeard battle it out; Blackbeard loses his whig! Peter not only learns to fly, but to rescue adults, and to speak fairy — telling them to get away asap! They ignore him, maybe lost in translation? Because flying like Superman or perhaps the Snowman, Peter joins forces with the fairies/faeries and they sparkle and twinkle the pirates to submission or send them to perilous acme falls down ravines.
The heavy use of CGI has been criticised. For me that’s not such a problem — it’s more the rendering of some elements. The key to the fairy/faery door is distinctly unmythical — it looks very plasticky and almost like a plug-in air freshener. We briefly meet Tinkerbell, but the fairies/faeries are mostly rendered as whizzing lights. Their kingdom is crystal stalagmites and stalactites which scream of Planet Krypton and is less faery and more David Bowie. I expected his Goblin King to leap out at any moment. Also, for such a determined fighter, Tiger Lily’s duel with Blackbeard was quite stop-starty — she fought brilliantly, then hung around aimlessly on a rope for a bit; she got captured a couple of times, then fought back again. The script couldn’t quite make up its mind whether she was warrior princess or damsel in distress, and it abruptly jumped from one to other. Obviously, she rescues herself much of the time! I think the editing didn’t help either — she seemed to be watching Peter before she reacted some of the time, but the shot angles just showed her swinging pointlessly around on a rope or running, only to be captured (again)! A slower pace to allow the action to happen would have been more effective here — when they’re balancing and jumping from yard arms or fighting sword to axe, it’s great and very well-choreographed and paced!
Peter discovers himself, saves everyone and then having watched Blackbeard being sparkled and then acme dropped into the ravine by the victorious fairies (faeries), the faeries (fairies) have a ‘video call’ for him from his Mum. The reunion with his Mum should have been moving; (definitely with a song — Mamma Mia!) Instead, it was a bit naff, with the worst Blue Fairy elements from all the Disney movies — everyone seems to forget which movie they’re in at this point and start channeling major ‘There’s no place like home’ Wizard of Oz vibes. Peter Pan wasn’t really about home, but about fitting into parental/adult expectations and social conventions! (or not).
The happy ending is ruined too because Hook is now most definitely not a pirate in charge of a pirate ship (Jolly Roger, wink), sailing off romantically with Tiger Lily and the reclaimed orphans (Lost Boys). What could possibly go wrong? It’s all fairly distributed labour here — Tiger Lily even gets to steer! Er, you turn evil, fight Peter Pan, lose your hand to a crocodile and develop a phobia of… ticking clocks…. Hook is so romantically Han Solo-esque at this point that the foreshadowing is a real problem. How can he sail off charmingly over London town major landmarks when we know what a monster he will become?
What makes this movie is actually the actors — Hugh Jackman preens without going full Sheriff of Nottingham/Alan Rickman cancelling Christmas — definitely super fashionable and vain James I courtier on the rampage for eternal youth! (be-wigged or bald!) Everyone has their best Brit accent on. The youthful actors, Levi Miller and Lewis MacDougall are wonderful, very realistic as World War Two East End lads — they don’t scream child actors, nor are they are too sentimental. Levi Miller’s reactions as Peter remind us that he is still a child — he falls, he goes ‘oof’ on impact. I wish that Nonso Azonie was on screen more (and less Smee) — despite being in a CGI’d pirate fantasy movie, he gives a subtle and nuanced performance whenever he is on camera.
There are holes though — having annihilated most of Tiger Lily’s people, she happily sails off with Hook — surely, she should be taking care of business as the new leader of the people? (If there are any left). What happened to the mine workers now Blackbeard is no more, and why was Hook there as an adult male, when most of the mine workers seemed to be young boys? Should I be concerned about Peter Pan (a child) saving adults, and being in a prison, an exploited labour situation with adult males? There is a darker hidden theme of trafficked people and adults being untrustworthy — Tiger Lily and Blackbeard both lie to Peter, manipulating him to get him to do what they want. Peter thinks he’s going to see his mother — sadly she’s dead, and he’s actually going to fight Blackbeard and save the Kryptonite/fairies. I suppose this is very J M Barrie-esque — adults and children alongside. Thankfully Tiger Lily is much more age appropriate in the way she relates to Peter!
A further weird subplot is Mary Darling. She ‘lived’ with Blackbeard. He is her dad? Is he Blackbeard Darling?… Or was the fairy/faery fella called Darling? Worse, given that we’ve already covered child trafficking and enslaved labour, was she actually Blackbeard’s concubine? He seems to take the rejection of Mary not wanting to live with him very personally. Is this all very Darth Vader meets Luke Skywalker? Best not to wonder….
The film has also been criticised for casting Rooney Mara as an indigenous American, a First Nation Princess. Honestly, given that this is a fantasy and the generally lazy styling of the indigenous people — everyone should be offended or none at all. I don’t have an issue here because really who or what is being represented? It’s a mess — mostly the styling seems to be referencing Latin America (Aztecs and Incas), with some traditional African traditions thrown in, and the Chief, her father(?) is an indigenous Australian in fashions. Some of the extras have gone full on in the face paint department without any cohesion with any other cast members. Bright colours and pom poms seemed to be the order of the day. I really liked Rooney Mara’s characterisation of the serious talking, sober fighting, smart and thoughtful Princess. But her outfits and their cultural references were all over the place — in the happy ending scene, she’s essentially wearing gym wear, ready for a cropped summer! Basically, everyone should be offended at the casual misuse of ‘ethnic exotic’ references all mashed up like this. Black Panther set a high bar for what is possible if some thought is given. I’m not sure she really needed to apologise though — she did a great job and the script had moved away completely from Barrie’s Tiger Lily as definitively First Nation to a kind of cultural soup of who knows what? (Although in hair styles, culture and eye makeup she is perhaps a Western woman hinting at First Nation traditions). Mostly, though, she does seem to veer more widely towards the Inca/Aztec looks vaguely — everyone should be offended for cultural crimes against fashion, it’s a horror.
What I did really like was all the shipboard fighting — Tiger Lily wielded a mean stylistic axe. Bishop’s acme getting smacked in the face by lots of falling objects seemed to have been edited short — for a humorous scene, blink and he’s gone, fallllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllling down into the acme ravine. When the poor indigenous people were shot by Blackbeard, they tragically disappeared into clouds of coloured smoke — like a Holi festival gone very wrong. This made their deaths more poignant somehow, but then really jarred when Blackbeard went Full Metal Jacket and had his Vietnam moment flaming the fairies (faeries). All he needed was Ride of the Valkyries playing in the background. Given the lack of MCU-style smacking people again and again and again, the flaming seemed a strange injection of nastiness in what had been stylised and very family focused. Also why did he flame the fairies? Surely, he could have just captured them and got them to mine fairy (or faery) eternal youth product for him forever. He was, after all, good with mines...(Maybe they were awful squeaky singers). His colonisation objective here was a bit odd — he was going to get in the door and flame the fairies (faeries) — but what then? I’m also concerned at how much of the crystal kingdom got bashed about — given how Peter and friends were truly meant to be trying to protect it from attack! Undoubtedly the fairies (faeries) who weren’t flamed by Blackbeard must have got squashed by ‘friendly ship movements’….
Lastly, I should mention the animated battle scenes/dream sequences, made from ‘mud’ and ‘water’. This was such an imaginative way of showing nastier/bit for the adults flashback elements in a family film, without it being too horrific (and I guess saved on a Lord of the Rings battle ready CGI budget!)
Overall, I’m not sure who the movie was aimed at — it was mostly family friendly, but quite long for children to sit through and engage with. Nor were there any interactions — they did not at any point have to ‘believe’ in anything to resuscitate a fading faery. Perhaps they could have put out a singed one or two during Blackbeard’s attack by shouting ‘I believe in fairies’ or clapping. Equally the part where Blackbeard and his cutless pursue Peter within a tent could have been more suspenseful and given the audience a chance to ‘boo and hiss’. Blackbeard does this, then is off again — having whisperingly damaged Peter’s ego and self-actualisation. The Jurassic Park (escaped from a Jim Henson workshop) puppet birds chase scene grated equally in the overall sense of the story — it was very much ‘oh we need a chase scene here’, ‘now here’s a falling bit’, ‘shall we blow something up next?’
Not as terrible as it’s been made out, Pan has a lot going for it once they get out of the mine — but with consistent stylistic choices to complement its deep sense of place and imagination, it could have been epic and really made us believe in Neverland.