Great children’s films have proved time and again that it is possible to entertain and impart wisdom with originality and tact. Pixar animations, for example, usually achieve this while managing to keep parents interested. Unfortunately, Joe Wright’s Pan is not among them. A retelling of JM Barrie’s story, the film is a complete muddle, from its awkward treatment of grown-up themes to its wildly varying visual effects.
Pan starts with Peter (Levi Miller), a WWII foundling tormented by the nun who runs his orphanage. He is promptly taken by pirates, to whom the woman had been selling the children. Miller’s performance varies from endearing to wholly irritating, with his enthusiasm carrying over to scenes that don’t require it. The aftermath of the capture delivers one of the best moments of the film – a breath-taking chase over London involving a flying pirate ship tailed by RAF Spitfires.
Upon their arrival in Neverland, Peter and the other children are enslaved in mines by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), the chief pirate, who is desperate to extract pixie dust, the secret of his eternal youth. Our introduction to Blackbeard is profoundly odd – miners and pirates alike join in a chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. While startling, it simply doesn’t work in the WWII context.
Jackman is almost unrecognisable as the famed pirate and conveys Blackbeard’s vanity well. However, the script fails to define his personality and it is a struggle to understand what motivates him – it’s clearly not just eternal youth - or even to detect a pattern in his unhinged behaviour.
In the mines, Peter meets Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a fellow prisoner, and discovers that he can fly. This means that he is Neverland’s Chosen One, and can, with the help of the local tribe and exiled fairies, overthrow Blackbeard. After escaping the mines with the help of Hook and Smee (Adeel Akhtar), they meet Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), who helps them in their fight. Mara’s character is cold and difficult to sympathise with. The accusations of whitewashing in her casting also ring painfully true (in JM Barrie’s original work she is of Native American origin), when she is introduced among a tribe of otherwise non-white characters. Meanwhile, Cara Delevingne, playing a mermaid, and Amanda Seyfried as Peter’s mother–are underused, the former in a non-speaking part, the latter barely seen throughout the film.
Pan fails on many levels. Many elements of its storyline are serious – violence, enslavement, child labour, and summary execution – yet it pitches a dialogue and plot clearly intended for a young audience. Whenever anything unpleasant happens (including the deaths that carry the story along) the camera looks away and the characters are unmoved. The film should have avoided these themes altogether, or found ways of introducing them to children sensitively. It is confusing and unhelpful to pretend that the ugly moments aren’t really there.
The visual effects and design vary between being fantastic and catastrophic. The flying ships and the forests of Neverland are magnificent, but the threatening Neverbirds might as well have been crayoned in as a feverish post-production afterthought. The tribe’s camp and costumes have the air of an arts and crafts fair.
The plot is full of inconsistencies and seems more interested in enabling one beautiful CGI setting after the next than in the practicalities of the characters’ adventures, or in the quality of the story. Many things don’t make sense – why, for instance, are the enslaved miners so supportive of Blackbeard?
Ultimately, Wright‘s creation is confused, poorly plotted, and awkwardly designed: Pan has nothing of the magic in Disney’s Peter Pan, or Robin Williams’ vigour in Hook. It isn’t dull, but it never makes up its mind on what it wants to say or who it wants to say it to.