In 1991, Steven Spielberg’s Hook was a sequel of sorts to J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan fairy tales, telling the story of what happened after Peter left Neverland and grew up. It’s now 2015, and Joe Wright has directed Pan, a prequel of sorts telling the story of how Peter Pan came to be in Neverland in the first place. It’s a marvelous idea for a movie, and I had high expectations … which, unfortunately, weren’t met. Despite some good special effects work, great art direction, and surprisingly decent 3D effects, the story was riddled with confusing gaps in logic, some of the characterizations were off, and most importantly, the tone was far more action-oriented and heavy-handed than a PG-rated family film should probably be. The fun and magic established by Barrie is now gone.
The first act of the film, curiously reset from the turn of the last century to the early 1940s, is almost like a Roald Dahl novel in the way it pits hapless children against mean, very unpleasant adults. After establishing that a mysterious woman (Amanda Seyfried) leaves her baby boy Peter on the steps of a Catholic orphanage in England, we flash forward twelve years, at which point the reality of World War II seems to pale in comparison to what the daring and mischievous Peter (Levi Miller) and his fellow orphans endure (it seems to, but it obviously doesn’t). The orphanage is presided over by a dumpy nun with rotten teeth, an Irish brogue, and a really nasty disposition. As she walks around with a yardstick and a permanent scowl, she isn’t above hoarding wartime food rations for herself. Nor is she above being in league with the pirates of Neverland, who descend into the orphanage every night and snatch away rounds of boys.
After a night of getting the dirt on the Mother Superior, Peter is himself kidnapped and taken by a magical flying pirate ship to Neverland. There he meets the evil and badly dressed Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who supposedly exterminated the fairy population and now uses the boys as slave labor to mine the youth-regenerating minerals the fairies left behind. Why did anyone think this was suitable material for a family film? What child would want to look at young boys with blisters on their hands and watch as they get shackled by their wrists at night? Be that as it may, when Peter discovers his hitherto unknown ability to fly after having to walk the plank over a deep chasm, Blackbeard fears Peter is the half-human, half-fairy prophesied to end his tyrannical reign of Neverland.
Aiding in Peter’s escape from Blackbeard’s mine is another slave – an initially hard-hearted young man named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), who, at this point, still has both of his hands. Setting aside the question of why Hook is the only adult forced to work the mines, one must wonder about how he was characterized; he’s about as far removed from a pirate as he can possibly be, dressing, sounding, and even behaving like a cross between a cowboy and a prospector, with just the tiniest hint of Indiana Jones thrown in. Not only is his transition from Peter’s friend to sworn enemy never shown, his personality and actions are such that we simply don’t believe such a transition possible.
There’s also, of course, the tribe on the outskirts on Blackbeard’s mine – a warrior race sworn to lead a revolt against Blackbeard and protect the remaining fairies in that are now in hiding. In a stunning display of political correctness, the tribe is no longer just Native Americans, but a cultural melting pot of African, Aborigine, and Asian, and they wear costumes that make them look like a cross between Cirque du Soleil performers and the refugees from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. The fact that the leader, the sword-wielding Tiger Lily, is played by Rooney Mara faking a British accent sheds no light on the issue. And if you’re going to frighten children by showing young boys as overworked slaves, why bother sanitizing the deaths of the tribespeople, who rather than simply collapse when struck down explode into puffs of colored powder?
Many smaller issues bog the film down. There is, for example, the curious decision to have a pirate ship fly over the city of London in full view of the public and be attacked by British bomber pilots. There’s also the fact that Peter is dyslexic when it comes to English writing yet is perfectly literate when it comes to the written language of the fairies. But if I had to choose the film’s most egregious miscalculation, it would have to be the scene of Blackbeard’s entrance, during which he rouses his hordes of miners by having them chant the lyrics to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This wasn’t a stylistic anachronism, as it was in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge; it was just irresponsible writing. Many thought Joe Wright gambled with his stage-oriented remake of Anna Karenina, and so he did, but it paid off. In the case of Pan, he gambled and lost.