In the opening narration of Pan, a prequel to the Peter Pan story, we learn that "sometimes friends begin as enemies, and enemies begin as friends." It should be noted that the people who are friends in the beginning of the film remain friends throughout, and those who begin as enemies remain enemies. Lit-geeks call this an unreliable narrator.
Of course, we know where this is headed. Peter (Levi Miller) and Hook (Garrett Hedlund) go on to become enemies, just not in this movie. This is a story about how Peter gets to Neverland, meets fairies, learns he can fly and attempts to defeat the evil pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Hook and Peter meet as child laborers forced to mine for fairy dust in Blackbeard's cordoned-off section of Neverland. Hook and Peter strike up a symbiotic bond, eventually escaping and meeting Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), princess of the Lost Children, and learning a series of revelatory truths about Peter.
The story holds together well enough, and the visuals are jovial eye candy (the July 24 release date was pushed back to October 9 to allow more time to complete the extensive visual effects). The first big action sequence is a blast, as boys are snatched from an orphanage and whisked away on a flying pirate ship that swerves left, right, down and up all the way into outer space, only to come down in Neverland. In 3-D, this looks fantastic. Subsequent action scenes aren't quite as successful, except for the finale, which is huge and impressive.
A word on the performances: they're terrible. Jackman snarls his way through playing Blackbeard and looks like a circus clown geisha with hideous makeup and costumes. His appearance is too ridiculous to be fearsome or intimidating. He also resorts to the crutch of yelling when trying to be scary, which is almost always a mistake. He's a good enough actor to know being truly intimidating comes through the eyes and body language, not projection of the voice. Any idiot can yell, after all. Then again his clothes are so baggy it would've been hard for him to use much body language at all.
As for Hedlund, he plays Hook like a cross between Indiana Jones and Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy from the new Star Trek movies (especially with the voice). By the end we're supposed to like Hook, but I didn't care about him one way or the other. As for Tiger Lily, poor Rooney. The talented, rising actress has nothing but boring dialogue and ridiculous costumes, makeup and headgear to wear. It's impossible to take anything she says or does seriously with a frilly serving tray atop her head. I'll give Levi Miller a pass considering he's so young. To his credit, he isn't annoying.
There are other inexplicable moments as well, the biggest of which is the singing of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when we first meet Blackbeard. This isn't Kurt Cobain on a soundtrack, this is the children in the mines, pirates and Blackbeard himself singing the song. It takes a while for it to register, but when it does it makes you smile. It's fun. Then you realize the meaning of the song has no relevance here, is completely anachronistic and makes no sense at all to use. Also, Pan is rated PG and targeted toward kids – what're the odds the little ones are going to recognize a song from 1991? And parents, if they do ask about it have fun explaining to your five year-old how Kurt Cobain died.
Pan is no atrocity. It's an origin story nobody asked for made by Joe Wright, a director whose films often feature creative decisions that make no sense. Remember the theatrical setting of Wright's Anna Karenina? Ugh. Yet, it will keep the kids engaged and there are certainly worse ways to pass the time. Just don't forget there are much better ways as well.
Dir. Joseph Wright; writ. Jason Fuchs; feat. Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried
In theaters now, 2 stars