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Peter (Levi Miller) is a mischievous 12-year-old boy with an irrepressible rebellious streak, but, in the bleak London orphanage where he has lived his whole life those qualities do not exactly fly. Then, one incredible night, Peter is whisked away from the orphanage and spirited off to a fantastical world of pirates, warriors and fairies called Neverland. There, he finds amazing adventures and fights life-or-death battles while trying to uncover the secret of his mother, who left him at the orphanage so long ago, and his rightful place in this magical land. Teamed with the warrior Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and a new friend named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), Peter must defeat the ruthless pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) to save Neverland and discover his true destiny—to become the hero who will forever be known as Peter Pan. (From WB’s official synopsis)

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As a thoroughly ingrained part of popular culture, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan stories have inspired countless artistic interpretations. The enduring mythology and Jungian psychological behind the story has also led to creative and subversive analyses and variations on themes. Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), which presupposed the would-be eternal boy’s return to Neverland, is probably the most famous of these revisionist adaptations, but the subject had started to peak in the middle 2000s. These included Damion Dietz’s Neverland (a rather dark ‘real world’ variant, 2003), a series of animated Tinkerbell prequels from Disney (2008-2015), Nick Willing’s two-part prequel series Neverland (from Syfy Channel/Sky Movies, 2011), and an entire season of ABC’s Once Upon a Time (2011-present) in which Pan was a key protagonist*. The latest alternate version of Pan and Neverland is Joe Wright’s austerely titled Pan, which follows the lead set by the likes of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer/Slayer (2013), in that it is elaborately designed and brimming with garish and expensive digital effects.

Based on the disappointing box office takes of these films, I’m not sure who Warner Bros. thought they were making this particular picture for, but they could’ve done a lot worse than a filmmaker as distinctive and inarguably talented as Wright. I haven’t been the most consistent fan of Wright’s over the years, but it would be ridiculous to not respect the technical artistry of his costume dramas ( Pride and Prejudice, 2006; Atonement, 2007; and Anna Karenina, 2012). Sure enough, Wright’s instincts prove interesting and, at its best, Pan couples the grandeur of those baroque period pieces as well as the quirky appeal of Hanna. Still, this mix-and-match approach takes a lot of patience, especially for viewers with an allergy to the zany, sometimes kaleidoscopic, purposefully anachronistic extremes of a Baz Luhrmann or Julie Taymor musical (more on the musical aspects of Pan in the Audio section). Assuming you’re the type of person that can handle the high-camp and garish extremes (and it can be very hard to resist Hugh Jackman’s wide-eyed, jumping, dancing, grinning Blackbeard performance), there’s the matter of pacing. There’s no breathing room between big conceptual/plot-point reveals (example: Peter, Hook, and Smee escape pursuit and within the next cut the audience is presented with the fact that Hook uses some kind of device to keep himself young (the edit is so abrupt that the music is almost cut off mid-note). Perhaps worse, there’s no time to appreciate a the awe of the Neverland environment and no rhythm to the action (despite plenty of well-established visual geography).

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Among Wright’s more obnoxious choices is casting Rooney Mara, an actress of Irish/German/French-Canadian descent, as Indian princess Tiger Lily. The treatment of the Native American-based characters in Barrie’s work has always courted controversy when being adapted for modern audiences. Technically, offense is unavoidable if one is to remain true to the books, as Tiger Lily’s tribe is named the ‘Piccaninny’ (piccaninny being a racial slur usually attributed to African-American children) and Disney’s animated version didn’t help matters with its notoriously offensive stereotypes and song “What Made the Red Man Red,” but, given the fantasy setting of these stories, there’s plenty of room for creative interpretation of Native-themed characters. Wright and his design team based their fairytale natives on an array of cultural composites, which is probably the best way to deal with the characters (outside of ignoring them altogether, like Hook). The idea of the tribe being a melange of races and creeds in this pre-Lost Boys environment is kind of neat and Mara’s performance is strong enough, but there’s still no valid excuse to completely whitewash the only major character in the story with a distinctive cultural basis (note that Carsen Gray, a woman of Hadia descent, played Tiger Lily in P. J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan).

Pan was written by Jason Fuchs, who is better known for his acting career and co-wrote Ice Age: Continental Drift. The script was apparently found lingering on the ‘Black List’ – an annual list of the most ‘well-liked,’ unproduced scripts in Hollywood – implying that it was something truly special. Unfortunately, the List is not always a sign of quality and has included the likes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and Transcendence. It’s nice that Fuchs doesn’t dial back on the fantasy aspects of the story and even adds a number of oddball touches of his own, but the process of exposing reasons for Peter Pan’s future as an anti-authoritative/anti-adult personality is tedious and robs the film of its small pleasures. It’s a very typical prequel in this sense, one that assumes the audience is aware of the original material and will greet every dopey reveal of a familiar character and fumbling callback with gleeful cheers. Time and again, Fuchs’ unique mythology is disappointingly tied to not only Barrie’s original story, but the same old Hero’s Journey tropes you’ve seen in every fantasy movie since Star Wars. His dialogue also skirts a dangerously thin line between melodrama and campy humour and Hugh Jackman seems to be the only cast member that really understands the screenplay’s tonal demands (I have no idea what Garrett Hedlund thinks he’s doing as a young Captain Hook, but I don’t like it at all). Pan actually has quite a bit in common with Willing’s mini-series in its basic story beats, which makes me wonder if Barrie wrote some kind of official back-story I’m otherwise unaware of.

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* Mostly unrelated to this review, but an interesting factoid nonetheless: There is a comic series from author Bill Willingham called Fables in which ‘fabled’ characters from mythology and literature have been forced to flee their world into ours by an unnamed ‘Adversary’ and his armies. Originally, Willingham intended Peter Pan to be the big bad (in turn, his nemesis Captain Hook would become a hero). When the author and DC comics discovered that Pan was not public domain – the literature is registered to Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) and the most popular visual representations of the characters are owned by Disney. Willingham changed the story and Geppetto, Pinocchio’s creator, became The Adversary. The post-script to the story came when DC/Vertigo shopped the series around for film and television distribution. Disney/ABC began development on the show in 2008, but dropped it from production just in time to announce Once Upon a Time – essentially the same idea with a more family-friendly slant. The fact that Peter Pan was a major antagonist during a later season is suspicious, given the studio’s ambiguous hand in Willingham deciding to change his story.

Video


Pan was shot using an array of digital HD cameras (Red Epic, Arri Alexa, et cetera) and had been converted into 3D during post-production. This review pertains only to the 2D, 1080p, 2.40:1 Blu-ray. Pan is a heavily-processed movie, including loads of digital effects and grading, but it is also a relatively eclectic film, visually speaking, where different environments yield different textures, contrasts, and colours. Wright and cinematographers John Mathieson and Seamus McGarvey present a murky, grey, real-world London with foggy details and punchy rose highlights alongside a vivid, sun-baked, and more dynamic Neverland. The transfer gets its best chance to show off during the Indian village sequences. The rainbow costume/production design (not to mention puffs of colourful smoke the Indians burst into when they’re killed) pops nicely against the green of the forest environment. Contrast levels change throughout the film, depending on how dark or sunny a sequence is, i.e. nighttime scenes feature harder edges and shadows, while daylight scenes are softer, sometimes even leading to a bit of bleeding around the edges. The complexity of the hyper-baroque production design and the crisp qualities of the higher contrast shots lead to plenty of tight detail. Some sequences feature digital ghosting artefacts during broad camera moves, but I assume these are the result of different camera rigs.

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Audio


Pan was mixed for use with Dolby Atmos systems and is presented as such on this Blu-ray. However, I shall be reviewing the core Dolby TrueHD 7.1 mix. This is a very lively track that can at times feel a bit assaultive in terms of how busy and buzzy the channels are, even during expositional sequences. Actiony, multi-channel highlights include the escape from London (where WWII planes battle the flying boat that kidnaps Peter and his orphan friends), the pirates’ attack on the Indian camp, and Peter’s underwater ‘vision quest’ where he witnesses his mother’s past as enacted by bubbles and smoke. John Powell’s score is a constant and bubbly aural element. The sheer quantity of music, from underscore to triumphant character themes and the occasional cast sing-along moment, is certainly noteworthy. Some readers may have heard that Wright and Powell use modern pop/rock music at a few points to help drive the weird anachronistic tone. These include choral recitations of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Though I like the idea of using familiar pop/rock standards in a period piece (it worked pretty well for A Knight’s Tale, for example), the content of the songs has little to no thematic bearing on the scene. The movie is also strangely frontloaded with these off-putting musical moments, as if the filmmakers lost their nerve and put the brakes on this particular idea. Back to the qualities of this Dolby TrueHD track, there are some moments where the music is relegated to the rear channels (a few times, it seems to disappear entirely from the front channels). I don’t know if this was intentional, a sign of bad authoring, or a case of my older system struggling with the demands of an Atmos-ready track. The worst of this occurs during the end credits, when the front and back speakers seemed to be at least four beats off.

Extra


  • Commentary with director Joe Wright – This is a pretty typical and mediocre solo director track. Wright takes the time to discuss the film’s development, changes made during pre and post-production, the cast’s previous work, production/costume design, and the general logistics of filming. But he spends just as much time hemming and hawing over where scenes were shot, what shots are digital, and other dull info that most listeners aren’t going to care about. There’s also an awful lot of blank space. My favourite bit is where he describes the genesis of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” moment, which was created during rehearsals, when Wright decided he didn’t like traditional sea shanties. So, there is no underlying reason for the song’s use – the actors just reacted well to it.
  • Never Grow Up: The Legend of Pan (10:50, HD) – A slick EPK that features cast & crew interviews, concept art samples, and a brief history of the character Barrie’s created.
  • The Boy Who Would Be Pan (6:10, HD) – A very similar companion piece EPK that focuses more on Peter Pan himself.
  • The Scoundrels of Neverland (5:50, HD) – More of the same, but this time spotlighting Blackbeard and his pirates.
  • Wondrous Realms (5:00, HD) – A weird mix of semi-animated title cards and steadicam footage that looks at the various sets and settings of the film.
  • Trailers for other WB releases


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Overall


Pan could’ve been a unique and visually impactful version of this oft-told story, but everything about it feels undercooked, as if it is a first draft. The pacing and rhythms are wrong, the tone is all over the place, and the special effects look unfinished. This 2D Blu-ray has a strong HD image, but also sports some major discrepancies in audio quality, as well as some dull and fluffy special features.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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