“Pan panned”. Well, which sub-editor could possibly resist that headline? Precious few, it seems, because you can find it countless times when you Google the reviews of Warner Bros’ new “Peter Pan” prequel, “Pan”. The film has taken a pasting from American critics (as I type, it has a paltry 24% on Rotten Tomatoes), and even before its release in Britain it was written off in newspapers as a calamitous flop which may cost the studio $150m. For British audiences, the boy who never grew up was dead on arrival. And, as someone who loathes sequels almost as much as I venerate J.M. Barrie’s novel, I can’t say I was too upset. When I sat down to watch it, I felt that if any film deserved that merciless two-word headline, it was “Pan”. A minute later, I was enchanted. A hundred minutes after that, I thought it was the greatest children’s fantasy film in years.
I wouldn’t claim that “Pan” is perfect. But I would claim that anyone who dismisses this awfully big adventure must have seen a lot of masterpieces that have passed me by. Are we really living in an age so rich in cinematic wonders that we can yawn at a flying pirate ship being chased by spitfires over London, skimming the surface of the Thames before soaring into the night sky? Are we really so jaded that we can tut at a jungle infested with Tyrannosaur-sized parrot skeletons, or a bay of mermaids who all have the face of Cara Delevingne? And are films really so over-populated with memorable villains these days that we can sneer at one with the strut of Tim Curry in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and the poesy of Dylan Thomas? (Death, he informs Peter, is “a slow dream drowning in the soft, dark sea”.) No. In an era of committee-approved corporate blockbusters, “Pan” stands out for its humanity, its sparky comedy, and its eccentric, unbounded imagination. It may be directed by Joe Wright (“Atonement”), but it’s as close as we’ll get to the “Harry Potter” film which Terry Gilliam was so keen to make.
The dizzyingly paced story of a boy in search of his mother, “Pan” is most enjoyable if you pretend that it isn’t a “Peter Pan” prequel at all. Despite the small detail that Barrie’s book was published in 1911, Peter (the likeable Levi Miller) starts “Pan” in a London orphanage during the Blitz. And when he is abducted by aerial pirates and whisked to the colourful floating island of Neverland, he meets a James Hook who could have been designed to annoy purists. Barrie’s Captain Hook reminisced about the playing fields of Eton; in “Pan”, Hook (Garret Hedlund) is an Indiana Jones/Han Solo hybrid. He is also a slave, forced to hack calcified deposits of fairy dust from a rocky cliffside. It’s a scene which has more in common with “Mad Max: Fury Road” than a Christmas pantomime.
Unlike most prequels, “Pan” has a cavalier attitude towards its source material—using what it wants, and discarding what it doesn’t. But it’s an attitude which is in keeping with Barrie’s own irreverence in the novel. True, when the slaves chant Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it may be a quirk too far, but this misstep is closely followed by the introduction of the foppish pirate king, Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, above)—and he is a baddie for the ages. “Have you come to kill me, Peter?” he asks when he meets our ever-young hero. Jackman delivers the line with such curiosity and anguish that you realise, with a jolt, that Blackbeard is half-hoping for a positive answer. It’s Jackman’s best performance to date, although that could be down to the dialogue he’s been given. There are very few fantasy movies that prompt you to look up the screenwriter’s name, but Jason Fuchs’s screwball banter is too sharp to ignore. “I couldn’t bear to watch you die,” Hook tells Tiger Lily when he rescues her from Blackbeard. “You should have closed your eyes,” she replies.
Ah, yes: Tiger Lily. One of the brickbats hurled at “Pan” is that a character conceived as a native American (not that Barrie would have used that term) is played by Rooney Mara, and this casting is cited as a noxious example of Hollywood’s “whitewashing”. I’m not sure that the criticism holds water, given that Hook, as mentioned, has been switched from an upper-crust Englishman to a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy. But it’s worth pointing out that “Pan” is one of the most multi-racial blockbusters I’ve ever seen. Tiger Lily’s leader (Jack Charles) is an Aboriginal Australian, her acrobatic sidekick (Tae-joo Na) is South Korean, and Hook’s craven pal Smee is played, hilariously, by Adeel Akhtar, an Anglo-Asian actor best known for his roles in “Four Lions” and “The Dictator”. In “Pan”, you never know who Peter is going to bump into next. That’s why it’s so exhilarating.
The only thing that stops it being a classic is its confused and hurried finale. “Pan” was clearly intended to be the first part of a trilogy, hence, after the last frantic action sequence, you’re left with the suspicion that the film-makers were saving some of Neverland’s marvels for future episodes. Now, of course, those future episodes have no chance of being produced, which is sort of a shame, but which also seems sort of appropriate. “Pan” may be a prequel, and it may set up a sequel, but it definitely feels like a one-off.
Pan is out now in America, and released in Britain on October 16th