Open on a vast mining pit. A group of young boys are trudging to its centre, shoved and yelled at by the boorish pirates that have taken them there on a flying pirate ship. The crags are filled with scores of other miners, all of them male, but all different races and ages. Peter Pan is among of the boys being pushed down the corridors, and with Levi Miller playing him, he has the wide-awake glint in his eye that could only belong to a hero preparing to meet his greatest foe. It’s a blockbuster beat as old as the hills, and the workers around him are clapping and stomping their own beat in a tribal frenzy, ready to play their part as Coliseum spectators to the confrontation…
…but then they start singing:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous!
Here we are now, entertain us!
I feel stupid, and contagious!
Here we are now, entertain us!
It doesn’t stop there. Peter’s nemesis-to-be appears on a floating barge: Blackbeard, a mix of malevolent warlord and mincing troubadour, played by a sallow-cheeked Hugh Jackman. As he walks down the gangplank to address his new children, he sings the last iconic verse to himself nonchalantly, as though he’s having the Nirvana record fed to him via the hidden earpiece that Tom Hooper gave him on Les Misérables. “I find it hard, so hard to find / oh well, oh never…” He turns away from the crowd for a moment to speak the last bit of his verse, transmogrifying Kurt Cobain’s growling apathy into the hammy, mustache-twirling gravitas he might have brought to Javert: “never mind….”
What on Earth is Joe Wright doing, putting Nirvana’s “Smell Like Teen Spirit” into the mouths of the ruffians populating his blockbuster take on Neverland? Baz Luhrmann might have pulled the same trick over a decade ago in Moulin Rouge!, but it’s still a shock to hear this grunge anthem crash into a candy-coloured fantasy adventure. The telling part is that those who squirm at its inclusion, presumably fans of a now 24 year-old album, are well above the demographic Warner Bros are swinging for, and more importantly, those who J.M. Barrie wrote his stories for. Those children who will shelve this new Pan into some nostalgic sector of their minds find in this sequence a new group anthem. Wright uses this as a contemporary take on the community hymns and chants of old, just like the Irish Blessing he puts over the end credits. It’s one of many unusual detours made during Pan, and the tactile splendour he and his crew discover along the way of this very familiar story is among the greatest mainstream pleasures of the year.<
They certainly have a good avatar in Miller, who is remarkably expressive for a just-starting actor being made to work mostly with green-screens. He does as well as the material lets him, given that his big dilemma boils down to whether he is an average kid literally tweaking the Virgin Mary’s nose in a London orphanage or the super-powered prince of a fairy kingdom, or in other words, whether he’s special or reallyspecial. Great fantasy adventures have been founded on weaker shoulders, and he’s got very capable players around him. Jackman leans very far in as Blackbeard, mostly mugging like the fantasy villains of old but showing his true stripes in one gorgeously eloquent monologue on the nature of Neverland itself, and getting one hell of a final line; the big winner in a simultaneously impressive and formulaic screenplay by Jason Fuchs. Rooney Mara is pigeonholed as a Strong Female Character archetype as Tiger Lily is all fight choreography and moxie, and hence ultimately short-changed in what is undeniably a boys’ tale. The absolute winner among the main cast, though, is Garrett Hedlund, who is shockingly gleeful as a pre-croc bite Hook who’s more cowboy than captain. Whether playing straight drama with Miller or fighting a man on a trampoline,1 he has an honorable giddiness for the whole venture. He’s like Jimmy Stewart play-acting as Errol Flynn for his little nephews; a rallying cry for boyhood adventures all by himself.
Even the supports are instantly winsome. Four Lionsvet Adeel Akhtar (you know the one who covers his face with his hands to buy gallons of liquid peroxide? That guy) brings amazing deadpan to the Mr. Smee role. The chieftain of Tiger Lily’s warrior tribe speaks with a regality that contrasts hilariously with his puffy, koala-like get-up, which makes it doubly funny that he keeps his Australian accent. Even those whose characters’ names are barely mentioned – Kathy Burke’s snarling nun who passes off sending Peter to clean the orphanage’s roof gutters as an act of penance, Nonso Anozie as Blackbeards’s tough and tetchy right-hand man called Bishop2 – fill out the rogue’s gallery with a journey-making vitality. The only ones who don’t get such treatment are Amanda Seyfried as Peter’s mother, supposedly a legendary warrior but hardly used beyond the opening scene in London, and Cara Delevigne, wasted as the identical mermaids of the lagoon. Sure-footed as it is, the film’s insistence in undermining these key female characters is very disappointing.
On the whole, though, Wright eschews cliché in his retelling of Barrie’s story. From minute one, a cornucopia of designs unfolds in the lavish manner of his last film, Anna Karenina; sure enough, he has former DP Seamus McGarvey and costume designer Jacqueline Durran to run hog-wild with him. What’s fascinating is the way he runs what are otherwise staid blockbuster beats through a revitalising process. The aforementioned grunge stomp is just one of many of these, which also include other songs from the Ramones and Lily Allen. Elsewhere, he twists the camera upside-down as Peter outruns a goggle-eyed Neverbird in the forest (itself a purple-hued dreamscape that puts Pandora to shame), turns the tired “we’re not so different, you and I” entanglement between Peter and Blackbeard into a dance of shadows, and, via a sterling VFX department, delivers backstory through animated segments that turn tree rings into rolling ocean waves and manipulates starlight into ancestral puppetry.
And then there’s the action sequences. The opening gambit sees the orphan boys be whisked away into the sky by pirates on bungee cords, like spiders swooping in for prey, and from there follows one impressive set piece after another. There’s dizzying maneuvers from humans and dirigibles alike, with the two intertwining with accelerating intensity at they literally hurtle towards the endgame. Underpinning it all is Peter’s writ-large journey of self-discovery, played out through the delightful physicality of figures leaping across cable casts and falling down ship masts. Squint past the rubber-banding computer graphics into the crowds of snarling pirates and you can almost, almost, make out a War Boy.
It’s true, ultimately, that very few people will place Pan‘s heady mix of fantasia among some of the best films of the year. The main thing holding it back, in addition to the needlessly sidelined female roles, is that all-too-modern impulse to anticipate a sequel before it’s even been made, with a few too many winks to the classic story it precedes and the plot turns it will have to take to arrive there. The real delight is in the innovation with which it goes about reshaping both the source material and the big-budget Hollywood mold. Details are peppered throughout to make the repeat viewings a compelling prospect: Peter’s telling inability to read, the London war room and bomber cockpits filled exclusively with identical prim women, the gunshots that burst clouds of paint rather than blood.3 Pan‘s song might overreach at times, but it’s notes like these that call out to minds young and old, and make it quite unlike any other tune we’ve heard this year.
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