It seems like every decade or so, we see a new attempt to tame J.M. Barrie’s timeless children story ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ into a film adaptation. With the notable exception of Disney’s spectacular 1953 animated film, none have made a particularly strong impression or impact (even Spielberg’s wonderful 1991 misfire ‘Hook’ only satisfies as a piece of nostalgia). In this time of reboots, cinematic universes and mega-franchises though, every property must be mined to death, and with ‘Pan’, the story of Neverland and the flying boy who never grows up is thrown once again into the blockbuster machine. At first glance, it seems like another ill-conceived and unnecessary reboot like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ - but as it turns out, ‘Pan’ might have a bit more going for it than you’d expect.
The film acts as an origin story for how Peter (Levi Miller) came to Neverland. In this imagined version (Barrie never gave an actual origin story for his hero), screenwriter James Fuchs has Peter kidnapped from a home for orphaned boys during World War II (yes, the book was published in 1911, but they do explain this... kind of) and sold as slaves to Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a flamboyant pirate digging up Neverland for any trace of fairy dust, a substance he has his orphan slaves mine for and keeps for himself for some unknown purpose. The arrival in Neverland awakens a hidden talent in Peter, who suddenly demonstrates an ability to fly, and he teams up with fellow orphan James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and tribal princess Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara) to stop Blackbeard from taking Neverland for himself and mining it out of existence.
As a concept, ‘Pan’ has a lot of problems, never quite transcending into something really engaging. The narrative lacks careful plotting (any story that relies on a "prophecy of a chosen one" is nothing but lazy), and the episodic set-pieces never quite gel together. What does work in Fuchs’ screenplay though are its ideas. There’s clearly a lot of respect for Barrie’s work here, and great care has gone into acknowledging it and building on it. Central to that is starting off Peter and Hook’s relationship as a friendship, an unexpected twist to the backstory that actually works. The tribes on the island are also wonderfully multicultural as opposed to Barrie’s Native American Indians, which gives the film a lovely extra flavour. The ever-present themes of death and searching for lost motherhood are also there and well-acknowledged, and the interpretation of Neverland as a hostile untamed wilderness comes as a breath of fresh air after the over-saturated fantasy worlds of the recent Disney live-action films.
The true success of the film really lies in the hands of director Joe Wright, ‘Pan’ marking his step into blockbuster filmmaking after his acclaimed dramas ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Atonement’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. Though this is a much bigger canvas, Wright’s hand is very assured, and he finds many ways to demonstrate his terrific visual flair. The film moves with a cracking energy and wit, but even though it’s certainly aimed at children, it doesn’t shy away from moments of reflection and meditation. He also throws in a myriad of little visual gags and nods to Barrie’s original story, especially around Hook and his currently intact hand. The technical skill of the film can’t overcome the weaknesses in the narrative itself, and though the finale is visually impressive, it doesn’t quite pack the punch it should. If it weren’t for Wright and his dedicated collaborators (particularly the wonderfully flamboyant production design), ‘Pan’ would probably not be as enjoyable as it is.
Levi Miller is a real find as Peter, full of spunk and energy, but able to chart some of the more emotionally difficult material. He’s certainly the best Pan we’ve had in a while.
The cast are also doing great work. Levi Miller is a real find as Peter, full of spunk and energy, but able to chart some of the more emotionally difficult material. He’s certainly the best Pan we’ve had in a while. Hugh Jackman came across in the trailers as a flamboyant joke as Blackbeard, and his performance is certainly over-the-top, but the great surprise is the seething menace that simmers underneath. There are moments where, combined with his bizarre costume and make-up, Jackman manages to be genuinely unnerving. Rooney Mara seems a tad lost as Tiger Lilly, never entirely comfortable in the scope of the film, but Garrett Hedlund is oozing with Southern charm and charisma as Hook, and looks to be having the time of his life. Adeel Akhtar also makes a surprisingly wonderful Mr Smee and even Uncle Jack Charles pops up as the tribal chief. Much like the work behind the camera, the performances go some way to making up for the flaws in the story.
It’s clear from the get-go that ‘Pan’ is intended to be the start of a series of films, with Peter not quite yet becoming the Pan we know and love. Whether there will be further instalments depends on the success of this first film. I’d be interested to see where they go with it, for even though this is a shaky start, there are some interesting ideas set sail in it. In particular, it would be great to see how Peter and Hook’s relationship develops, as they have such a care and affection for one another here, and we know this’ll end with Peter cutting off Hook’s hand and feeding it to the crocodile Tick-Tock. I’d love to see how they handle that dark little narrative point.
‘Pan’ is not an outright success, certainly not a scratch on the animated film and not even really an origin story that particularly needed to be told. That said, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable two hours, full of colour and laughs and excitement. It might not capture the magic of Barrie’s original story and occasionally overcomplicates it, but at least it respects its source material and doesn’t go out of its way to ignore it. Joe Wright and his team have done a fine job, and I for one would be interested to see where they take these characters next.