Peak Pan is here

Hollywood’s love of origin stories and world-building reaches critical mass in the latest lit adaptation by Joe Wright.

Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard in Pan

I have never been more sure of anything in my life: there is no need to further explore the world of Peter Pan. There have already been movies about the life of Pan post-novel (Hook) and the life of JM Barrie as he was writing Pan (Finding Neverland), so it’s somewhat inevitable that in this franchise-obsessed climate someone would want to explore the life of Peter before he was Pan. Nothing about Pan feels necessary or particularly original. If anything, it feels a bit like Star Wars: Episode 1 in the way it draws unnecessary parallels between the story we already know and the story they’re telling. Any film that draws any kind of comparison to Star Wars: Episode 1 is starting off on the very wrongest of feet.

Peter (Levi Miller) has spent his entire life in a London orphanage, having been left there as an infant by his mother (Amanda Seyfried). Twelve years later, he’s a mischievous orphan wreaking havoc with his best friend Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) as London is in the midst of WWII. During an air raid, the boys are faced with the very bizarre appearance of a flying pirate ship that snatches the orphans in their bed. Nibs manages to escape but Peter is whisked away to a mysterious world run by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a flamboyant pirate who is obsessed with capturing boys and putting them to work mining for pixie dust. Peter’s insolence and mischievous nature immediately lands him in hot water with Blackbeard. When Blackbeard tries to execute him, he learns that he can fly. Befriending a roguish miner named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and a tribal princess named Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), Peter escapes the clutches of Blackbeard and sets about finding out what happened to his mother in the often-dangerous world of Never Never Land.


The cast of Pan

Director Joe Wright is not known for his tentpole action movies. Pretty much his entire filmography prior to Pan were adaptations of literature both classic and contemporary, and most were critically well-received, but pretty much none of his movies required the bombast and shrill assault of the senses that comes with a CGI-laden family film like this one. Wright commits to an opulently over-the-top aesthetic that combines steampunk design, Burton-esque goth landscape and Moulin Rouge! levels of camp that’s certainly not boring but grows wearisome over time.

Jackman’s Blackbeard is a flamboyant dandy that sees the usually hulking Wolverine take a page from the Johnny Depp playbook as he sashays, erupts into song and generally chews the scenery. Similarly, the film attempts to downplay the stereotyping and racism of previous incarnations of Peter Pan by turning the Picaninny tribe into a colourful multi-ethnic crew of Cher back-up dancers. This collage of aesthetics is over-the-top to say the least (the worst decision is definitely the one where “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” are turned into pirate chants) but at least it keeps things mildly bonkers throughout.

What’s really most annoying about Pan is its incessant desire to tie in with what we know of the Peter Pan story. Remember how The Phantom Menace went to great lengths to set up that C3P0 was actually Anakin Skywalker’s robot? Almost every dramatic development within Pan has somehow been jammed into the overall narrative and is accompanied with a poke-in-the-ribs reference to make sure we’ve made the connection. It’s the kind of thing that’s written into kids’ movies “for the adults” but done in a way that becomes downright annoying. If Blackbeard’s Boy George-looking dwarf assistant hamming it up in the corner of every frame doesn’t get you, the incessant “we’ll be friends forever, right?” banter between Hook and Peter will.

Wright is well-known for his use of impressive, idiosyncratic camerawork; his feature debut turned the BBC aesthetics of Pride & Prejudice into a dynamic and cinematic experience. While there isn’t anything with the wow factor of Atonement’s beach tracking shot, Wright does bring a keen eye and some neat camera trickery (there are actually two credited cinematographers, which is a fairly uncommon practice) to what is often a jumbled tonal mess — the action scenes are clean and colourful and sometimes even fun in a way that the rest of the film isn’t.

As an avowed big fan of campy messes, there’s a part of Pan that satisfies me. Its complete and utter disregard for anything resembling a cohesive idea for a movie means that the film is filled with ideas; the fact that it’s nothing but a jumble of ideas is what will prevent it from being a camp classic. Actual terrible camp fiascos tend to have a strong (but delusional) authorial voice behind them, whereas Pan mostly feels like hundreds of people maniacally raiding the wardrobe department and yelling disparate film ideas to one overworked intern. It’s misguided failure by committee, and that’s never quite as satisfying as misguided failure by hubris. 
Pan opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 9. Watch the trailer here: