Pan is certainly not the first film to expand on the world of Neverland. We live in a world where Hollywood constantly churns out prequels and reboots. I can’t say that I was surprised when I heard about a prequel to Peter Pan. Over the last few years, he has been quite overexposed. With the TV adaptation of the stage production, Broadway’s Finding Neverland, and Once Upon a Time, I was definitely feeling some fatigue. Pan follows suit in the fatigue pattern. Between the overblown special effects and a story framework that’s been beaten to death, Pan felt like an endurance test.
In retrospect, I felt like Peter Pan himself pulled a bait-and-switch on me. I found myself fully engaged in the story prior to Peter’s arrival in Neverland. Peter (Levi Miller) lives in a strictly run orphanage during World War II. It’s not a throwaway backdrop for the story to take place. There’s great attention to detail and the visual look reflects the time period. Peter’s mischievous antics and rebellious attitude are completely in line with the character he will one day become. Once we get to Neverland, he becomes a plot device. It’s revealed that Peter may be part of a prophecy that predicts the downfall of antagonist Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).
Utilizing prophecies for story purposes is a huge pet peeve of mine. Oftentimes, it’s incredibly lazy and coincidental. It’s foretold that Peter can unite the tribal people and the fairy kingdom in order to save Neverland from Blackbeard. The catch is he needs to be able to fly to do so. It’s hard to become invested in the story when all the information is spoon-fed through expository sequences. Whenever Peter is told about the history of Neverland, it’s done through lazy methods like a magic tree. We are told about what occurred prior to Peter’s arrival but it’s never explored beyond basic detail. As he receives more information, Peter’s attitude quickly changes from brave rebel to an inconsistently written reluctant hero. Despite being the central character, Peter is the least engaging screen presence.
Much like a lot of prequels, Pan is filled with winks and nods to classic Peter Pan lore. They’re more distracting than beneficial considering how little feels connected to the original story. Take for example James Hook (Garrett Hedlund). Even though it’s a prequel, this Hook feels nothing like his future counterpart. He’s an amalgam of characters from other movies. He speaks with the dialect of a cowboy but possesses the roguish demeanor of Han Solo. All of the characters are broadly drawn and feel like they each belong to different films. Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) is just there because she’s tied into the mythology. Mara’s bland performance isn’t entirely her fault, but it also brings into question the controversy of her casting. Aside from her, the tribe members all come from various ethnicities. Much like last year’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, it brings the issue of “Whitewashing” in Hollywood front and center.
While most of the characters are broad, Blackbeard is the only one that seems appropriately placed. Jackman brings a theatrical mindset to his performance that blends well with the lavish effects and spectacle. He simply relishes in his villainy, which is a kind of ground Jackman rarely treads. I wasn’t distracted by his outlandish appearance as much as I was by his introduction. His method of worship involves his servants chanting “Smells like Teen Spirit” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” As crazy as this sounds, it got me wondering whether or not they should have made this a musical. Considering the ridiculous characters and story, I could have seen that approach being beneficial.
It’s difficult to decipher who should take the brunt of the blame. Director Joe Wright has done some excellent work, and I saw his hand early on. The World War II setting was definitely up his alley. Once Peter arrives in Neverland, I got the sense that he was trying to balance out the shoddy script and over reliance on special effects. This reminded me of the maligned Star Wars prequels. By the time Pan reached the third act, any sense of story was thrown completely out the window. It’s action that’s devoid of investment because we know nothing bad will happen to our main characters. The majority of prequels don’t succeed for this very reason. Pan was two hours of eye candy in place of hollow storytelling. What could have been a unique spin on Peter Pan was replaced by a film overwhelmed by its own spectacle.