How did Peter Pan get to Neverland? How did Captain Hook get his ship? And what’s up with fairy-dust? These are questions unlikely to plague viewers, but if you were really wondering then you could pop in a disc of director Joe Wright’s Pan, soaring onto Blu-Ray, digital HD, and DVD release this month. The film reconfigures the story of Peter Pan back before he met Wendy, John, and Michael Darling; before he was the leader of the Lost Boys, the hero of the natives and mermaids, the sworn enemy of Captain Hook. Because back in those days, Peter was just another lost boy himself, an orphan dreaming that his mother will one day find him again.
We first meet Peter as his mother (Amanda Seyfried, shockingly underused) leaves him on the steps of an orphanage with only a loving note and a panpipe pendant around his neck. Fast forward twelve years and Peter has grown into a charming young boy (Levi Miller) who makes trouble for the nuns and dreams of rescue from the orphanage. And he is rescued, in a sense, as pirates abduct him and dozens of other boys and cart them off to Neverland.
There, after a confusing Nirvana musical number (did Nirvana exist in 1944?) they’re forced to work in the evil pirate Blackbeard’s (Hugh Jackman) fairy-dust mines. Peter meets James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a fellow worker who wants nothing to do with the young boy but, being the anti-hero type, winds up helping him anyways. When Blackbeard discovers that Peter can fly, the boy and his new friend must go on the run to find the natives of the island, whom Peter believes can tell him where his mother is. Things get more convoluted from there on out, as Peter learns about his true origins and seeks his destiny.
Pan follows in the recent tradition of so-called “true stories” of classic characters. Sometimes this works reasonably well (Maleficent) and sometimes it…really doesn’t. Part of Pan’s problem is that it can’t quite make up its mind about what kind of film it is. It quickly sheds most of its adherence to the original J.M. Barrie stories, opting instead to explain some of the magical aspects of Neverland (like why the children never grow up) via the rejuvenating powers of fairy-dust.
The best fairytales establish a sort of depth in their seeming simplicity, adhering to recognizable rules. But Pan, having discarded Barrie, establishes no clear rules of its own. Do people grow old in Neverland at all, and, if so, how long has Hook been there? Is Peter only able to fly because he’s part-fairy? What about those happy thoughts, hinted at but never explained? And why the hell is everyone singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?
In reconfiguring Peter as a sort of fairy Messiah, the film abandons previous adaptations’ use of Neverland as a universe for children who “don’t want to grow up.” It seems that Peter would love to grow up; he’s just not going to get the chance. Pan leaves behind the characterization of a brash, arrogant adolescent constantly playing pretend for a serious-minded young boy taking the weight of the world on his shoulders. This isn’t about children resisting the grown-up world; it’s about a child becoming a grown-up. Peter’s figured as the Messiah for fairies and natives alike, a hero who has no choice about whether or not he wants to go home. Neverland is his home and he’s going to stay there whether he wants to or not.
Upon release, Pan was roundly criticized for its questionable ethnic representations – like casting Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily. But the film does have a multi-ethnic cast: the natives of the island are a hodge-podge of ethnicities and races, as are the pirates and the lost boys. But despite this lip service to diversity, all the lead roles are occupied by white people, with other races and ethnicities relegated to background figures or, at best, secondary characters of questionable morality (Smee, played by Adeel Akhtar, is excellent comic relief, but also cringingly villainous). The attempt at diversity actually comes off as more problematic than if the entire cast had been filled by white actors.
The leading cast, meanwhile, seem to be entirely at sea. Levi Miller is as competent as child actors go, but his role as Peter is so scantily drawn and without complexity that you only root for him because that’s what’s expected of you. Hugh Jackman is a marvellous villain, gnawing on the scenery with all his might, but his very extremity from the start means that he has no place to go: Blackbeard is just a sneering villain and nothing more.
Meanwhile, the often likable Garrett Hedlund makes for a lack-luster hero as Hook. The film barely hints at Hook’s future villainy (presumably that’s matter for the sequel?), but neither does it gives him undeniable heroism or even anti-heroism. He’s just sort of there, trying to be Indiana Jones in the midst of the CGI jungle. As for Rooney Mara, she does a serviceable job as Tiger Lily, but is given very little to do except dress like a Williamsburg hipster at Burning Man, providing necessary plot exposition at key moments.
And that’s the problem with Pan: it’s nothing more than a serviceable film, with serviceable performances and serviceable CGI. Visually, it’s as bright and shiny as Avatar, but does nothing with the often majestic images it creates. Neverland is beautifully rendered, with very few seams, yet many scenes feel like Wright is trying to pack so much magical wonder into a given frame that the images lose their impact. The fight scenes suffer from an overabundance of jump cuts – ships, men, boys, and figures flit across the screen with little rhyme or reason, and it’s quite a strain on the eyes to figure out who is where and when. Not that it much matters: you’ll know soon enough, because the outcomes are all pre-ordained in the by-the-numbers plot.
This Blu-ray boasts some of the usual special features that one gets for films like this. Never Grow Up: The Legend of Pan attempts to situate the film in relation to Barrie’s stories, especially in the concept of Neverland as Peter’s imagination. The Boy Who Would Be Pan takes us through the casting process for Peter, while The Scoundrels of Neverland examines the backstory of Blackbeard.
The featurettes are professional and, like the film, serviceable without telling us much we might not already know. They’re interesting enough for anyone not yet versed in the backstories of Peter Pan or looking to understand the incorporation of Blackbeard into the Pan mythos, yet the paucity of the film itself means that these game attempts to give it depth are left wanting. Wondrous Realms provides an “immersive” look into Neverland, featuring original drawings and first-person camera journeys through Blackbeard’s mines, the Neverwoods, Mermaid lagoon, and the Fairy Kingdom. Finally, Joe Wright does a once more serviceable commentary on the film, probably the most interesting of the special features for the adults in the audience.
Pan was originally released in 3D and Warner Brothers will be releasing a 3D Blu-ray version, as well as regular Blu-ray and DVD packages. The regular Blu-ray is an attractive disc, including the DVD and a digital copy of the film. The Blu-ray versions also include a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which Warner Brothers remixed for a home theater environment – and based on watching the film on a standard HD TV, I was impressed with the solid audio balance.
It’s unfortunate that Pan didn’t make more of the opportunities afforded it. There are some excellent elements here, from the stunning visuals to an excellent cast that boasts two Academy Award nominees and a child actor who will probably do well in his fledgling career. But the film meanders from one scene to another without a strong plot arc, and the characters remain statically entrenched. For a coming-of-age story, there’s not much coming-of-age; for a childhood fairy-tale, there’s a disappointing lack of fairies. Peter Pen, and Neverland, deserve better than this.
A middling, serviceable attempt to tell the backstory of Peter Pan, Pan fails to impress despite excellent visuals and a strong cast.