In Pan, we have another prequel/origin story of a classic character that absolutely nobody asked for and nobody needed; nothing but another special-effects display that fails to deliver anything meaningful in regards to the plot. For a film focusing on a character that has the ability to fly, Pan’s inability to get off the ground is actually astounding.
The story kicks off with Peter (Levi Miller) being left at an orphanage by his mother. Several years later, the nasty nun who runs said orphanage ends up selling the children as a labor force for Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who’s pirates arrive in the middle of the night to scoop all of the boys up. They’re taken to Neverland, where they are forced to mine for fairy dust – also known as “pixim” – for Blackbeard’s use.
Peter meets James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) in the mines, and the two eventually escape after Blackbeard discovers Peter’s ability to fly. Blackbeard had previously hunted the fairies to extinction in a war and following his victory was told of a prophecy regarding the son of the fairy prince and a human woman; the boy would have the ability to fly and would lead the way towards Blackbeard’s downfall and death. As Peter is the only kid in Neverland with the power of flight, obviously he’s the subject of this prophecy.
After James and Peter escape, they make their way through the wilderness and discover a tribe of natives led by Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). The tribe had fought alongside the fairies in the war and believe that Peter will help them defeat Blackbeard, so they help him fight. More Neverland shenanigans happen, Peter fights Blackbeard (spoiler alert: he wins), and they fly off in the Jolly Roger – a happy ending for everyone.
When I first saw the trailer for this, I was pretty excited – the effects definitely looked good, and I’ve always been a big Hugh Jackman fan, so I had hopes that Pan would be something worth watching. Unfortunately for everyone, it’s not. What this film really has going for it is its visuals. It’s genuinely really fun to look at; the screening I attended was in 3D, and I am generally not a fan of 3D (because I hate wearing glasses on top of my glasses), but I actually thought the effect brought out the environment a lot.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the fun ends. The story is so generic – the canned “chosen one” storyline has been done so many times, and it’s entirely predictable from start to finish. There’s nothing in the plot that can’t be seen coming, and the performances of most of the actors fall flat as well. The only person who inflected any sort of personality into his character was Jackman, who made an interesting Blackbeard. As the primary antagonist of the film, he was able to be, at times, terrifying, but balanced that out with some genuinely comedic moments. It was the most dynamic performance from anyone in the cast, and it marked some high points in the film.
Everyone else, though, was super flat. Hedlund, as Hook, probably could have inflected a little bit more craziness into his role. We all know what eventually happens to Hook – he has his hand eaten by a crocodile and becomes Peter’s nemesis – but there’s really no foreshadowing of that happening in the film. In fact, the two become the best of pals by the end of it. It would have been nice to see hints of instability with that character, or anything regarding what his ultimate fate is, or anything regarding a rivalry between him and Peter, but nope. We get him freaking out about crocodiles, but the crocs are also enormous, so anyone would have had the same reaction.
Levi Miller as Peter was okay, but not great. His range of emotions was also somewhat limited. What was supposed to be the most important part of the film – the emotional climax where he meets the spirit of his mother – ends up just being flat and boring. I was not moved. It seemed that he was still on the same note he was at the rest of the film, and I couldn’t get on board with it.
There are a few reasons why I didn’t like Rooney Mara in this film and her performance is only one of them. Like many others, she’s flat. Basically emotionless. There are points to the Tiger Lily story arc that are clearly meant to be emotional, but she just doesn’t hit them. It’s really amazing how flat most of the main cast is, and Mara wasn’t an exception.
So let’s move on to the biggest topic that surrounded this film during its development, which is the fact that Mara, a white woman, was cast to play Tiger Lily, who has traditionally been a Native American character in the most popular adaptations of the Peter Pan story – it’s how author J.M. Barrie envisioned the role. It’s hardly the first time this has happened (the blonde Sondra Lee notably played her in the 1954 musical) but you’d think that people would know better by know. Or, at least, you’d hope. But the pale-as-can-be Mara instead takes over the role in Pan, and not only is she not very good, but the depiction of the Piccaninny Tribe is borderline offensive.
Director Joe Wright had defended the casting of Mara as Tiger Lily by saying that the tribe wouldn’t be based on Native American imagery and would instead be “very international and multi-racial.” But instead of going full-out colorful neon rave tribe (I was expecting something similar to MGMT’s video to “Electric Feel”), he kind of half-assed it. You still see plenty of traditional Native American imagery and patterns in the clothing and architecture of the tribe, including some feather headdresses and war paint. It also looked as though most of the tribe were people of color – so the tribe itself had a diverse cast, but apparently needed a white person to lead them.
The fact that the 2014 production of Peter Pan Live got this aspect nailed down in the best and least-offensive way possible – by casting a person of actual Cherokee descent in the Tiger Lily role and by changing the song “Ugg-a-Wugg” to something a little less racist – but a big-budget film such as Pan stumbled through it is just astounding. They could have done better, and they chose not to. And that’s no longer acceptable.
In fact, there’s really nobody non-white in the main cast – Miller, Jackman, Hedlund and Mara are all white. The supporting character of Smee, however, features Adeel Akhtar in the role, meaning they changed a traditionally white character to a person of color. I’d be okay with this if not for the fact that Mr. Smee has always been somewhat of a worm and a liar who is most invested in keeping himself alive; meaning, of course, that the person of color most seen in Pan ends up being the person who betrays Peter to Blackbeard to save his own skin. I’d go further into that, but there are probably plenty of hot takes already online on it, so take it as you will.
Ultimately, with a canned plotline and flat performances, Pan is completely skippable. If you’re truly interested in the Peter Pan mythos and origin, you can go back and read the books that have existed for about a century that already took care of that story. Even the special effects and fairy dust weren’t enough to make Pan worth watching.
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