Joe Wright is one of the most compelling directors to make his feature debut since 2000. He has made an excellent, lived-in period piece (Pride & Prejudice), an action thriller (Hanna), a wild reworking of a legendary Russian novel (Anna Karenina) and more. Even his most dismissed film to date The Soloist, which on the surface is Oscar-bait, has moments of daring visual playfulness.
Now, he makes Pan, an origin story for the boy that never grew-up. Adaptations and re-imaginings are nothing new to J.M. Barrie’s creation. If anything, it’s a realm of characters, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that feels ready to be put to bed for a while. Wright and screenwriter Jason Fuchs imbue their telling with a certain level of insanity. Pirates drop from the sky like trapeze artists, skulls drawn on their heads. Characters explode into dust – all the colors of the rainbow – after being shot. Miners chant The Ramones and Nirvana to their master Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) in Neverland.
So yeah, a little nutty.
At its best, Pan recalls the family, fantasy-films of the 80s like The NeverEnding Story or Return to Oz, full of unexpected darkness, askew-whimsy and everything over-the-top. This is a film in which Hugh Jackman portrays a pirate that dons a mask hooked up to pixie-dust to stay immortal. Chunks of this work. Wright creates a lavish, bizarre world, where the performances are the only thing larger than the costumes. This is broad, theatrical stuff.
Jackman excels best at it of the ensemble, biting into the evil persona. He giddily sings along to his slaves shanties, before riling them up on who is to be punished for theft, laziness of lies. Plus, he has some fantastic costumes; a variety of pitch-black armor, feathers and wigs that in a better film would inspire Halloween costumes for years to come. Garrett Hedland hams it up too as a pre-villainous Hook, one of Blackbeard’s prisoners who befriends our Peter. With a thick, unspecific accent, wide-eyes and grand gestures, it’s the kind of performance that could scream as annoying in the wrong picture. Here, it befits the hyperkinetic tone.
Of course, a Peter Pan story would be nothing without a solid Peter himself. Pan’s is Levi Miller, a just fine enough young actor for the part. He’s best in the early, Earthly elements of the picture where he runs around a World-War II era orphanage with his friends causing mischief, before being hauled off to Neverland by Blackbeard’s goons. As the boy in awe of his surroundings, learning to fly and trying to live up to an apparent prophecy/destiny/one-of-those-stories-again, Miller is, well, fine enough. He neither detracts, nor adds to the quality.
What does hurt Pan most of all is its pacing. The movie rushes from scene to scene with an urgency that keeps any non-surface emotion at bay. A major revelation or death can occur one minute and feel a mile away seconds later, as a whole other plot-strand plops its head down into the adventure. Nothing resonates emotionally because nothing is given the space to do so. It frankly begs the thought that the studio got anxious of the weirdness, budget or both, then demanded that Wright and his editors cut it to an exact running-time. Scenes stop on a dime, one after another in probably the worst edited film of the year. The movie desperately requires a longer cut to flesh out its absurdities. Whether one exists, or would even be good, is another thing altogether. However, it’s not uncommon for a mish-mash movie like this to work exponentially better via increased space, making even lackluster scenes work.
Other issues pop up as randomly as Pan’s construction. Often reliable composer John Powell’s score plays like an imitation of what an epic fantasy should be. Every turn of the tune and swell of the orchestra happens precisely as one would predict. Wright’s mind allows for a number of beautiful images, like a retelling of the truth behind Peter’s mother. Elsewhere, Wright’s imagination is a hindrance, particularly a finale that features flying ships zooming around an undefined landscape. When the rules of a story and scene are so loose, it’s hard to draw out the tension.
Pan is a fiasco. It has an ebb and flow that is maddening amidst the wonder. The film could have cult classic smeared all over it, if it weren’t so damn irritating so often.