Nothing could have driven me to see an unnecessary cash-grab Peter Pan prequel. Nothing except my love for director Joe Wright. The only reason I can muster why such an interesting director would have decided to waste his time in this non-entity of a story is the relative commercial failure of his latest, and most ambitious, movie: a highly theatrical and expressionistic adaptation of Anna Karenina. Maybe Wright thought he should go for a sure bet after his ambition didn’t completely pan out. If that’s the case, then one can very easily detect that Wright’s heart is not in making this movie.
It would have been foolish to go into Pan expecting a typically masterful Joe Wright movie. This being a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, I was prepared for whatever plot screenwriter Jason Fuchs (whose biggest credit before this is Ice Age: Continental Drift) had come up with to be wholly unsatisfying. Surely enough, bad choices abound Fuchs’s script. For example, he moves the setting of the “real world” part of the movie from Victorian England to WWII era London for no valuable reason except to have an air battle between the RAF and a flying pirate ship.
The choices made in this movie range from questionable to disastrous, and reach their apex in a sequence that has mining pirates sing along to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. But before you set your hopes for a ridiculous mess of a movie, you must know that said sequence is one of very few moments that allow the audience to find glee in the filmmakers’ misguidance. The M.O. for the rest of the movie boils down to the most tired and boring formula Hollywood ever put its hands upon. Pan turns the story of the boy who never grew up, into the story of a plain white “chosen one”.
Yes, young orphan boy Peter (Levi Miller) turns out to be the son of a fairy prince or some other nonsense, which means he is the prophetic warrior that is supposed to help the fairies and the natives defeat evil pirate Blackbeard, who is played by a made up Hugh Jackman who isn’t afraid to go full Depp in his histrionic performance. Blackbeard has seemingly hunted the fairies into extinction, and he now runs a mining operation, designed to dig up whatever fairy dust is left in the soil. This is the set-up of a script so bad it’s almost uncanny. It’s incredible how most of the dialogue in this movie doesn’t relate to either plot or character. It doesn’t even make sense.
But let’s forget for a second that the movie never quite explains why Blackbeard wants to dig up all this fairy dust. Let’s also forget that the movie doesn’t quite figure out what the rules of flight are in this universe despite having J.M. Barrie’s original novel provide a brilliantly economic explanation. And let’s forget that the movie disregards the magical childhood simplicity of the original in favor of becoming yet another cheap Star Wars (or Hero’s Journey) knockoff. That was all to be expected. The movie’s biggest, and perhaps only, unforgivable sin is to have stripped Wright’s possibility of making a Joe Wright movie.
Despite his eye for dazzling visuals, and despite a recurring storybook motif in his previous work, Wright turns out to be a horrible fit for this material. If you think of the trademark visual of a Wright movie, you will picture a long take that seamlessly follows a character through an immaculately designed space. Some examples: when we follow Elizabeth through the Bennett house at the beginning of Pride & Prejudice, when the camera roams around the Dunkirk beach in Atonement, and Eric Bana’s subway fight in Hanna. These sequences are all purposely theatrical, but they also define the practical, tactile nature of the characters’ environment. There is nothing that even approximates such a sequence in Pan.
The current style of production for expensive blockbuster (and Pan is quite expensive at a budget of 150 million) isn’t nearly as flexible as cinephiles would like it to be. For every time George Miller is allowed to go to the Namibian desert and come back with Mad Max: Fury Road, there are ten or twelve movies in which the director has little (if any) say in the use of computer and computer generated sequences in the film. The reliance on computer imagery seems to have stunted Wright, whose previous films relish in the practicality of their effects. The director is at a loos without the possibility of building a set piece around a practical set, and having to rely on images created by a contracted visual effects company.
The result is Wright’s most inelegant movie yet. He is simply not allowed to craft his typically beautiful visuals, and he is certainly not helped by the god-awful quality of the computer generated effects. Certain inspired visual touches prop up here and there -like projected shadows, or characters that die as color puffs of smoke-, but even those decisions highlight the fact that despite having made movies with child protagonists, Wright is not a children’s director. There is a hidden eroticism to his filmmaking in the way he uses camera tricks and luscious design to express the characters’ passions. He brings up childish images -like the lined-up toy animals in Atonement, or the blocks in Anna Karenina– but he is most interested in contrasting such visuals with adult emotions.
Making a movie explicitly for children is not something Wright is adept to do. This is most evident in his failed handling of the movie’s comedy, which is broad, grotesque, and ill-timed. For all of his excess as a filmmaker, Wright always uses the repressive aspects of adult life to keep his stories focused. Going off to Neverland, a land of no repression, results in an imbalanced movie. As if it’s Wright couldn’t calibrate anything about this production, not even the performances, which go from Jackman’s histrionics, to a horrendous child performance by Miller, and some bizarre Daniel Plainview impersonation courtesy of Garrett Hedlund as Captain Hook.
Instances of directors’ talent and imagination being squeezed dry by studio filmmaking are a common occurrence. Pan is an unmitigated failure. I am pissed off Joe Wright wasted so much time in this awful movie when he could have been making his next masterpiece, but one shouldn’t dwell on the past, and focus on the possibilities of the future.
Grade: 3 out of 10