Overall Score - 65%
While my review might sound like I really disliked Pan, I actually didn't. When you just take the film as two hours of entertainment, it's certainly an enjoyable adventure... as long as you try not to focus too much on all the political messages that are stand out like neon signs and disregard the unforgivable whitewashing. Otherwise, numerous nostalgic nods to the original film sprinkled throughout will surely warm the hearts of those who remember the Disney classic fondly.
When I saw the trailer for Pan, I remember thinking that creating an origin story for one of the most beloved characters in all of children’s literature was a really clever idea. I can’t speak for the original novel as I haven’t read it, but Disney’s Peter Pan (1953) had many plot elements and details to suggest that the characters had a rather rich history together, especially between Peter and Captain Hook. Looking at it from that perspective, a Peter Pan origin story seems almost obvious… I mean, who wouldn’t be curious how Peter Pan and Captain James Hook became mortal enemies?
So the intrigue would certainly be there for those familiar with the Disney classic, but Pan would obviously have to hit the Goldilocks zone of “just right” in order to be successful. Audiences want a film that would be true to the original, almost like the Disney film’s prequel rather than a standalone Warner Bros. franchise. And yes, Pan is a Warner Bros. film, which could be where much of the trouble lies with regard to the finished product, but I’ll get to that a bit later.
[The following is a synopsis of the movie, but doesn’t give away the climactic ending.]
In the opening scenes, we see Baby Peter left on the steps of an orphanage by his mother (played by Amanda Seyfried) who tearfully kisses him goodbye. Twelve years later, London is in the throes of World War I while Peter and a group of boys are living at an orphanage run by a corrupt, food-hoarding nun. Each night as the children sleep, a couple of the boys will mysteriously disappear and are theorize that they’re being evacuated to Canada because of the war. As the audience, we see that the corrupt nun in charge raises a pirate flag on the orphanage flagpole to signal the arrival of a flying pirate ship. Peter and several other boys are taken by pirates who swoop down on ropes Mission Impossible-style and quickly shoot back up to the ship. And without further adieu, they’re off to Neverland.
However, Neverland isn’t what you might remember from the Disney film. Peter and the others are brought to an immense, cavernous hole in the ground—seriously, it’s one huuuuuuuuge hole!—and every square inch of it is covered by entrances to tunnels dug by orphan boys brought to mine for a very valuable resource. We’re introduced to the fearsome Blackbeard (played with fervor by Hugh Jackman) as well as James Hook (played by Garrett Hedlund), a man presumably brought to these mines as a boy and, therefore, a long-time slave of Blackbeard. We also learn that Blackbeard has tens of thousands of slave boys looking for something called Pixim, which is a rare substance that is somehow created or left by fairies, which Blackbeard has hunted to within an inch of extinction.
After accusing Peter of trying to steal Pixim, Blackbeard intends to make Peter walk the plank off the ship, which is still hovering over the center of the huge cavernous pit. However, before hitting the ground Peter begins hovering in mid-air. Having never flown before in his life, Peter is as surprised as the slaves and pirates watching him. Blackbeard takes Peter into his private quarters and tells Peter of the fairies’ prophecy, which says that a young boy who can fly will defeat Blackbeard. Before Blackbeard is able to kill Peter, Hook and Peter escape with the help of Smee, another of Blackbeard’s slaves. They steal a ship from Blackbeard’s flying fleet and escape into the Neverland jungle.
Peter believes that his mother is still alive and is actually in Neverland, wanting Hook to help him find her. Discussing how they plan to deal with the Neverland natives who will like want to kill them, Hook wants to leverage Peter by telling the natives that he’s the boy of the fairies’ prophecy. The natives come along, capture them, and take them to their village. Upon learning that Peter could be the boy of the prophecy, they tell Peter that he must prove his identity by flying. However, Peter is actually scared of heights and doesn’t want to accept that he’s the “chosen one.”
Meanwhile, Blackbeard is searching for Peter. When he comes across Smee in the jungle, Smee offers valuable information so that Blackbeard will spare his life, confessing that the fairies are are still alive and living in a secret kingdom on the island, but only the natives know its location. Blackbeard and his pirates ambush the natives, but Peter, Hook, and Tiger Lily escape. They decide to take Peter to the fairy kingdom for his own safety, but on their journey Peter is nearly eaten by a giant crocodile. Fortunately, he’s saved by three mermaids (all three of whom are played by Cara Delevingne). Having made it to what appeared to be Skull Rock from the original film, Hook flies off on an abandoned ship—the Jolly Roger—while Tiger Lily helps Peter to retrieve the memory of his mother’s history in Neverland, which the mermaids apparently keep stored in the actual water. All it takes is a deep breath and a dunk under the water to get the very convenient vision. Peter learns that his father was a fairy prince and that, despite actually being in love with her, Blackbeard killed Peter’s mother since she was a warrior for Neverland.
As they approach the doorway into the fairies’ secret kingdom, they’re ambushed by Blackbeard and his pirates, who found the hidden map to the kingdom back in Tiger Lily’s village. Blackbeard opens the door and is greeted by Pixim as far as the eye can see. Planning on mining the fairy kingdom into oblivion and then destroying the fairies, it’s a race against time with Peter and Tiger Lily tied and bound as Blackbeard’s prisoners while he sails through the fairy kingdom and toward the fairies’ hive, armed with flame-throwers.
Thoughts & Impressions: What I Liked About Pan
My first thoughts about Pan were that it was a pretty fast-paced movie and contained a lot of action. Aside from the very beginning at the orphanage, I don’t recall ever getting impatient for things to get moving again; however, there were plenty of more subdued scenes where you get to learn more about the mythology of Neverland and how Pan is connected to the original Disney film, which is probably the best thing about this movie. And despite being pretty heavy on visual effects, everything looked really, really good. There weren’t any rough-looking effects that make a person cringe, which I really appreciated.
The casting choices for the film were mostly good. Jackman’s Blackbeard is reminiscent of his character Jean Valjean at the beginning of Les Misérables when the character gets paroled and is still all rough-and-tumble. However, there’s definitely something more sinister in Blackbeard, who also conveys some theatrical and almost Burton-esque undertones that make Blackbeard a unique addition to Hollywood’s pirate roster. Peter Pan was played aplomb by Levi Miller, an Australian-born newcomer who was quite good in the role and will surely be in more films to come. Garrett Hedlund’s James Hook was a very nuanced performance, making what would traditionally be a fearsome character remind you of a good ‘ole Southern boy. In fact, Hook even has a Southern drawl in the film.
Cara Delevingne was a great choice for the role of the mermaids—yes, she played all three. Her performance was limited to being visual without speaking any lines beyond a subtle, soft sort of clicking sound similar to what you’d expect from a dolphin. Appearing for all of two minutes, the mermaids seemed present for the purpose of being another reference to the original film and perhaps to add some eye candy as the only other female that appears in the film is Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily.
What I Didn’t Like About Pan
And now the problems… Although I definitely enjoyed Pan to the extent that it was entertaining, I wouldn’t actually call the film a success. That might sound contradictory so I’ll try to explain. On a superficial level, the movie seems well-made, shows a few really smart casting choices, and the quality of the effects was very admirable; however, as you begin to look closer and consider some of the finder details, your opinion of the film begins to drop.
One of the biggest problem that I had with Pan was that instead of trying to be a timeless companion to the original film, it was chock full of political messages and public service announcements (PSA’s) that would have no place in any Disney movie for children. And these weren’t subtle undertones either. During the opening scenes of the film, child abuse and human trafficking comes into clear focus as the head nun is not only withholding food from the orphans in her charge, but she’s also selling the children to pirates in a flying ship, allowing them to be taken to Neverland to be child laborers. This child-trafficking ring is what initiates the entire film’s plot while slavery and the slaves’ liberation is mentioned at several points throughout the film, which really rams the human-trafficking-and-child-labor-are-bad message into your head when all you really want is to watch a movie about a boy won’t grow up. Ironically, the boy who won’t grow up is sold into child slavery at the beginning of the film.
In addition to the child labor and human trafficking messages, there’s also a PSA about the exploitation of unsustainable natural resources. In fact, Blackbeard’s army of child slaves exists for the sole purpose of mining every last bit of a rare resource that exists in Neverland. Even the fairies were hunted to extinction. This public service announcement was so loud in the film that it’s almost surprising deforestation and mountaintop removal weren’t likewise mentioned as being a threat to Neverland’s beauty, but maybe that angle was being saved for the sequel.
Notice how I never mentioned what Blackbeard wanted the Pixim for? Well this was yet another public service announcement. In a scene shortly after Peter’s arrival at the slave colony of Neverland, we see Blackbeard in his “revitalization room” as he loads a piece of Pixim into his elaborate Pixim-crackpipe and smokes it; apparently, the magical properties of Pixim keeps him young. Or more accurately, the magical properties of Pixem keeps him late-middle aged. Without taking an occasional toke of the Pixim, Blackbeard quickly ages to the point of looking like the cryptkeeper.
Speaking of Blackbeard’s need of Pixim in order to stay middle-aged, here’s another problem I had with Pan: In the original film, Peter went to and stayed in Neverland because while he was there he was unable to grow up. Even in Hook, Peter didn’t grow up until he returned to the real world and became Robin Williams. As such, I didn’t understand why Blackbeard even needed the Pixim to keep from getting old (or older) when merely being in Neverland should have stopped the aging process altogether. Additionally, James Hook was brought to Neverland to be one of Blackbeard’s slaves as a boy, so shouldn’t he still have been a boy rather than growing into a man? It’s possible that the land of Neverland hasn’t yet acquired the power to keep inhabitants young at this early point in Peter Pan’s story. Alternately, since Pan establishes that Peter is the half-fairy son of a fairy prince, it could be that only Peter is immune to the effects of time while in Neverland. Whichever it is, this is something that should have either been incorporated into the movie or an issue/question addressed by the movie since the ability of Neverland to keep its inhabitants from growing up was a pretty important feature of Neverland’s mythology. As it stands, I feel like this is a huge plot hole in the film.
Between the trafficking, slavery, exploitation of natural resources, and the clear drugs-are-bad message, it’s almost like whoever wrote the script used a 2016 presidential candidate’s political platform as the source for the film’s plot points. One of the PSA’s by itself would have been more than enough, but it probably would have still been okay and wouldn’t have damaged the film in any way. But with several PSA’s that each have so much weight and have been major topics of discussion in politics and in the news, Pan takes classic characters and drenches them with contemporary political and environmental issues, making it feel like the movie is a mere vehicle for pushing someone’s political agenda. It would be more forgivable if this weren’t a children’s movie—and one that was meant to serve as a prequel for a beloved Disney film at that—but these were themes that were completely, distractingly out of place in this movie. And I can’t help but feel that this wouldn’t have been an issue if this had been an actual Disney movie rather than a product of Warner Bros., which tends to make films unnecessarily dark or based too much on current events. As such, there’s likely won’t be many Warner Bros. films made today that will be seen as timeless when people watch them ten or twenty years from now. Unfortunately, these approaches to filmmaking—making them almost too relevant to current events—make them appealing to today’s audiences, but won’t likely stand up to the test of time.
Another major issue that I took with the movie was its portrayal of Tiger Lily and the Neverland natives. These roles have been severely whitewashed, which has been a major problem in Hollywood as studios would often rather cast a white celebrity in ethnic roles than an ethnically-accurate no-name. Once in awhile a movie won’t be totally ruined by whitewashing—such as when it’s a secondary or mixed-race character—but other times the whitewashing is glaringly obvious, offense to many people, and the movie suffers greatly for it. Case in point: Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger? Jake Gyllenhaal as a Middle Eastern prince in Prince of Persia?
In Pan, Mara’s casting as Tiger Lily effectively whitewashed a character that was portrayed as being analogous to Native Americans in the 1953 Disney film (actually called the Piccaninny tribe). In fact, the native Neverlanders were, for all intents and purposes, visually indistinguishable from American Indians in the original film. After publicity photos of Mara in character as Tiger Lily were released, fans who objected to the whitewashed casting started a petition in the hope that Warner Bros. would recast the role of Tiger Lily with someone more ethnically appropriate, but the petition was unsuccessful.
The natives in Pan look more like the Lost Boys in Hook (1991), wearing bright and mix-and-matched colors, actual footwear such as boots, and beads rather than feathers. They were also all glaringly Caucasian and looked more like a commune of hippies and rastafarians than a tribe of natives that are supposed to be representative of the Indians in the original film. I would imagine that children who see Pan today and then go home to watch the original Peter Pan probably wouldn’t realize that the two completely different portrayals are actually supposed to be the same group of people. In fact, they probably wouldn’t even realize that Rooney Mara was supposed to be the Tiger Lily that was portrayed as being Peter’s age and having a little crush on him in the 1953 film. In Pan, romance blossoms, but it’s between Tiger Lily and Hook rather than between Tiger Lily and Peter.
On a budget of $150 million that doesn’t account for the money spent on the film’s marketing campaign, Pan has grossed an embarrassing $93.7 million worldwide and is considered one of the year’s biggest box office flops alongside the likes of Tomorrowland and Fantastic Four. The film was directed by Joe Wright—known for Pride & Prejudice (2005), Hanna (2011), and Anna Karenina (2012)—from a screenplay that was actually on Hollywood’s blacklist in 2013. Pan currently holds a 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes based on 152 reviews and a 36 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 35 critic reviews, but the small audiences who have actually seen the film have been more forgiving with an overall “B+” given to the film according to audience rating aggregator CinemaScore. Although the film has received praise for its generous action, high-quality CGI, performances by some of its cast, and steampunk-esque set designs, Pan seems to have failed to fly due to “a stock ‘chosen one’ narrative,” whitewashing ethnic characters, and the shameless PSA plot devices with overtones of unsustainable and exploitative mining, warfare, human trafficking, child slave labor, and the danger of drugs.
While it might seem that I really disliked Pan, I actually didn’t. When you just take the film as two hours of entertainment, it was certainly enjoyable. As long as you try not to focus too much on all the political messages that are stand out like neon signs, disregard the whitewashing, and focus on the many nostalgic nods to the original film that are sprinkled throughout, Pan is a non-stop adventure that gives beloved characters a bit more depth. Unfortunately, the film starts to fall apart with a closer inspection and I’m sure many adults will see the obvious PSA’s that I pointed out above. On a scale of one-to-ten, I’d give Pan a generous 65 percent as it has the ability to entertain, but there were many mistakes made during the film’s scripting and casting that surely contributed to its poor performance and probably killed any chances of Pan getting the sequel that was foreshadowed at the end.