*Potential Spoiler Alert*
Remember what a big hit Avatar (2009) was a few years back? With the animation and the 3D and overwhelming beauty of every shot, we all thought it was a fantastic movie and that James Cameron had just shot another masterpiece. Then, after a year or two went by, we realized we were just watching a more beautiful, live-action and more visually exciting version of Pocahontas (1995). I’m sad to say that this is the case once more with Pan (2015)– it is visually stunning and you don’t want to look away from the screen, but what is actually happening on it is less than satisfying.
The story begins with a young woman carrying a baby to an orphanage (and performing some really interesting stunts for someone who’s holding a rather breakable baby in her arms) before cutting to Peter (Levi Miller), twelve years later, living in the same orphanage during World War 2. When he and his friend discover that the nun in charge of the orphanage is selling boys in the middle of the night, they are snatched by pirates and taken to Neverland, where they are forced to work in mines searching for fairy dust for the dreaded pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Peter escapes with a fellow miner named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and sets out to find the natives of Neverland, since they will know of the prophecy about a boy who can fly (which he discovers he can do) and therefore might know where his mother is.
The story, as you can see, is quite normal; the prophecy, the evil pirate searching for treasure, the boy in the middle of the prophecy who doesn’t believe he can do it, we’ve seen and heard all of this before. Now it just happens to have the name Pan attached to it, so the filmmakers through in little tidbits to connect it to the story many of us have grown up with (cute references to Hook’s hand and Lost Boys aren’t really enough to satisfy though). It also doesn’t’ help that most of the actors are just trying too hard to make us laugh. Hook is made out to be this sarcastic, Harrison Ford-type of character, flirting with princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), both lying and helping Peter with his quest, and generally being the audience’s comedic relief.
Sadly, many of his jokes fall flat, and whatever Hedlund was trying to accomplish usually inspires just a little titter from us, if anything at all. The same goes for Mara’s warrior princess- she just tries too hard to be aloof and cool and not fall for Hook’s charms, and we can see it. Even Levi’s lines are delivered with an earnest nature that suggests he really wants us to like him and will do anything to make that happen, and the only reason he gets away with it is because he’s an adorable little kid (seriously you can’t say no to that face).
The saving grace in this cast is Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard, who both intimidates and amuses us with an almost Jim-Carrey-like personality (I felt like I was watching Count Olaf in A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) again, but with a sword and actually quite a bit scarier). Most of the laughs I gave the movie were strictly given to him, and because he was a character previously unknown to me, I was more interested in his story (though still slightly cliche) than I was in the attempt to reimagine the stories of characters I already knew.
While the characters fail to enchant and the story is only so-so, the landscape of Neverland itself is sure to dazzle you. The colors alone are an explosion, especially when you reach the native camp, but you are also treated to a firefight between WW2 planes and a pirate ship over London, the deep darkness and dust of mining pits, dazzling sparkles and crystals, and even mystical mermaids (all played by Cara Delevingne, I kind of had to laugh at all these mermaids with the same face) and a hugely terrifying crocodile. There are floating bubbles of water with animals inside of them and floating ships and everything you ever dreamed of there being in Neverland. Even if the story never manages to make you feel like you’re seeing anything new, your eyes will be exceedingly pleased with the beauty that is being put before them.
The biggest disappointment to me with this film is that I think they really were trying to leave it open for a sequel, because the narration, even the trailers, start with a promise: “I’m going to tell you a story…but this isn’t the story you’ve heard before, because sometimes friends begin as enemies, and enemies begin as friends. Sometimes to understand how things end, we must know how they begin.” This implies that by the end, we will understand how the events of the Peter Pan we grew up with came about, because we’re learning about how he got to Neverland and how they began. We saw the trailers where Hook is Peter’s friend, and we want to know, how did that change? Well, sadly, we don’t actually get that information. Whatever story came about to make Peter and Hook enemies, we’re still waiting for it. And while Peter fighting Blackbeard is fun to watch for a little while, that’s not what I’m really invested in.
Keep your eyes open, in that case: who knows, we might be coming back to Neverland to finally get that story.
Think a happy thought- at least the songs are fun to listen to.