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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Tales from the Black List: Pan (2015)

* *

Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara

When original ideas are in short supply, just turn a well-worn property into an origin story and call it "new." Pan is what I suppose you would call the "winner" of the great Peter Pan adaptation race that started about six years ago. Following in the footsteps of Snow White, who found herself in two different "re-imaginings" released in 2012, by 2011 there were no less than 5 Peter Pan projects in development, two called "Neverland" (one of which actually did get made as a miniseries prequel to Peter Pan, the other of which was a take with Peter Pan as the villain and Captain Hook as the hero), one called "Peter Pan" (a "family adventure"), one called "The.Never.Land" (described as a "Twilight-ish spin" on the relationship between Wendy and Peter), and one called "Pan" which would have seen Peter and Hook as brothers and which would have had Channing Tatum involved in some capacity. I'm not sure whether that "Pan" and this one are the same film a few re-writes apart but, at any rate, this version of the Peter Pan story, written by Jason Fuchs, made it onto 2013's Black List and presumably read much better on paper.

In this take on the story, Peter Pan (Levi Miller) is a baby left at the door of an orphanage in London, who is coming of age in the midst of World War II. Snatched in the middle of the night by pirates in a flying ship, Peter is spirited away to Neverland where he becomes part of the slave labor force mining fairy dust for Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). After discovering that Peter can fly (which comes as a surprise to Peter as well), Blackbeard fears that the boy might be "the one" who has been prophesied, the son of a human woman and a fairy prince who is destined to kill him. With the help of James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and Sam "Smee" Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar), Peter is able to flee from Blackbeard to the tribal territory of the forest, where they're found by Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and brought back to her tribe's village. There Peter learns more about his parentage and that he's "the Pan," the key to the tribe and the fairies finally defeating Blackbeard, and though he himself has his doubts, he ultimately decides to follow his destiny and fight the dread pirate.

I'm going to start by saying that I think Joe Wright is one of the most underrated filmmakers working today - Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Hanna, and Anna Karenina are all good to great films in my opinion, each showcasing to varying degrees Wright's flair as a visual and narrative stylist - but Pan is a film full of missteps. It starts out well enough with Peter as a rabble-rousing orphan whose antics prompt the orphanage's head nun to summon the pirates to take him (and several other orphans) away, but once the film moves to Neverland it becomes something that never seems to know what it wants to be and plays as if it's throwing anything out there and seeing if it will stick. On his arrival, Peter is greeted with the sound of Blackbeard's slave labor force singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit," a development that prompted me to say aloud to no one "... what the fuck?" At first I was surprised because I didn't realize that Pan was a musical, but it turns out that it isn't a musical, it's just a fantasy film that decides, for some reason, to have its characters break into familiar song on two occasions, as if at some point it was designed as a jukebox musical before being re-written to become something else but in the end they had to keep a couple of songs in order to sign Jackman to star. That the two songs appear is weird enough on its own (the other is "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones); that neither song actually makes any particular sense in the context of their respective scenes just makes it seem like a desperate ploy to try to keep the viewer's interest and dress up what is otherwise a fairly run of the mill "special boy" narrative.

While the lack of a cogent creative vision is definitely one of Pan's problems, the bigger problem is the one that, at the time of its release, was its most controversial element. Pan was widely criticized for its casting of Mara as Tiger Lily, making it part of the growing pantheon of whitewashing that studios are still (somehow) surprised people take issue with. The character is a problem, though I don't think that Mara is the biggest part of that problem. I think the role could have been cast with an aboriginal actor and it still would have been a problem because the whole concept of the character (who, let's remember, is from a tribe referred to as the "Piccaninnies") is so deeply rooted in the colonialist fantasy of noble savagery that I'm not sure that there's any way the character and her tribe could be included that isn't tainted by that. Not that Pan particularly tries. The tribe depicted here is a textbook example of "othering," with the members of the tribe portrayed as partially dressed, spear carrying, living "primitively," and hostile to strangers to the point of wanting to kill them on sight. It's also worth noting that the tribe is predominantly made up of people of color - Tiger Lily is an exception, but her parents somehow are not.

There's an argument to be made, I'm sure, about respecting the source material even when it directly speaks to the prejudices of its time. However, when you're actively selling something as a "fresh spin" on an old story, then I think you've given yourself permission to make changes to the material. Pan, in fact, does change things by making Peter and Hook allies and making Tiger Lily a love interest for Hook - so why stop there? Why write in those elements - which feel very much like the building blocks for a story that would have played out over a trilogy and explained how Hook became the antagonist - but preserve the most racist part of the story and essentially say, "Eh, what can you do? It was a different time"? A storyteller has choices, even when adapting another person's work. The makers of Pan simply chose not to make an effort when it came to this element, presumably hoping that any criticism of it would be balanced out by praise for the film's technical achievements in terms of its visual effects and production design. While the film's visual effects and production design are its strengths, neither element is so eye-popping or exceptional that they really stand out among the scores of fantasy films with similar visual aesthetics that have come out over the last several years. While Pan isn't a film entirely without charm, it's not a film that ever really justifies its own existence either.

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