Netflix UK film review: Pan
Nathanael Smith | On 09, Feb 2016
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried
Watch Pan online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Upon its release, many critics jumped at the opportunity to make the most of that title. Pan puns flew about the place like fairies as cinephiles declared the film to be an absolute mess, an unmitigated failure or an insult to cinema. The case for the prosecution highlighted how passé the “chosen one” plot structure was, how the crummy CGI made it look cheap, how there was no tonal or narrative consistency and mostly how stupid it was to have a scene of kids singing Nirvana.
To an extent they were right, especially about Nirvana. In a woeful scene near the beginning of Joe Wright’s take on Peter Pan, all the child slaves are singing Smells Like Teen Spirit for no discernible reason whatsoever. It’s a misstep, as is a fairy-heavy final 10 minutes with worse flying effects than the original Superman film, made almost 40 years ago. Yet this origin story for J.M. Barrie’s beloved character is a far more fun, engaging and inventive piece of cinema than most of the franchise dreck churned out by studios year on year. It’s the kind of old-fashioned adventure that should have caused reviewers to pull out silly words only critics use like “romp” and “derring-do”.
The film opens with smoky shots of 30s London beneath glittering stars, which makes way for a title treatment of gleaming steel – while many would think fonts irrelevant, there’s actually something rather telling about directors that properly pay attention to making the title of their film look great. Here is somebody who cares. The plot kicks off with Peter toughing it out in an orphanage. The tone is immediately established: nuns in demonic bonnets serve meat-free gruel to deprived kids with characters so broadly painted it would make Dickens blush. Moments later, however, he is being carried onto a flying ship by pirates on bungee ropes, before said ship soars over the city while being shot at by Spitfires. Next stop: Neverland.
The thing it’s important to realise about Pan, and any interpretation of J.M. Barrie’s world, is that Neverland was always intended as a world of pure imagination. Each of the three children that first go there in the play realise all of their dreams on this island: Wendy finds mermaids; John finds pirates; Michael finds Native Americans. Add some crocodiles, fairies and secret lairs and you’ve got a place entirely designed to appeal to the creative and adventurous minds of children. Yes, Pan throws every idea at the screen and it doesn’t entirely cohere, but the same exact claim could be said about Barrie’s play. The storytelling, wrapped up in a pervasive sense of wonder and adventure, is entirely in-keeping with the world that Barrie built.
Pan the movie obviously does some things differently. For instance, the uncomfortable Edwardian racism that continued into Disney’s “What Makes the Red Man Red” singalong 50s film has been neatly sidestepped. Instead of a tribe of “Injuns”, crude stereotypes drawn from cheap literature (even their tribe’s name, the “picaninnies”, was a racial slur), the pirates’ biggest rivals become an international group of warriors with global influences, led by the fierce Tiger Lily (played brilliantly by Rooney Mara wearing the best eye shadow ever). The other notable difference is the initial setting of World War II, around three decades after the play was written. Why? Because Neverland exists outside of time and place.
Yet what Pan maintains is the spectacle that a place like Neverland demands. Pirates, crocodiles and mermaids are all present and correct, as are new sights, such as flying fish soaring around globules of water floating in the sky. There’s a very cinematic thrill to seeing an airborne pirate ship flipping upside down while avoiding canon fire, or fight scenes where, instead of dying, characters explode into plumes of colourful smoke. Every supporting character is pantomimish and over-the-top, although none match Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard for sheer excess. In his first scene, one of his sentences reaches a crescendo with the word “CONFECTIONERRRRYYYY” and you realise exactly the level Jackman is aiming for. It’s an absolute blast.
Invention bursts from every scene, in the costumes, the sets, the ideas. Following it all is a camera that moves lucidly, tracking Peter as he floats through space or spinning round in battle as the tribes and pirates face off in thrilling form. One particularly beautiful moment is a piece of animated exposition, where Peter’s past is unveiled in “the memory tree”, as carved oak figures play out the story. DPs Seamus McGarvey and John Mathieson, alongside production designer Aline Bonetto, ensure that each frame is bursting with colour. John Powell’s sweeping score, using a fittingly hodge-podge array of instruments, hits exactly the right notes you want from such a sincere and heartfelt adventure film.
Yes, Pan is a mess. It sets up a sequel that will never come, leaving several strands hanging – how do Pan and Hook end up as enemies? – while the plot leaves much to be desired. There’s also that annoying prequel tendency of setting up in jokes and making knowing winks to the existing property. But if you can look past those elements, as too few people seemed able to do, then Pan is a rip-roaring romp crammed with derring-do. It has enough spectacle, visual verve and ingenuity that one suspects J.M. Barrie would be watching with a big smile on his face.
Pan is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.