Sunday, June 5, 2016

Pan (2015)

Peter Pan has seen his share of adaptations over the years since J.M. Barrie's original 1904 play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. The first adaptations were to short story/novel format by the author himself when "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens" and Peter and Wendy were published in 1906 and 1911 respectively, and many film versions have been made in the century since. Produced by RatPac-Dune Entertainment and Berlanti Productions and distributed by Warner Bros. in 2015, Pan tells an alternate origin to Peter Pan than the hand of J.M. Barrie but one that feasibly fits in with his most revered and well-remembered film adaptations, the eponymous animated treasure from Disney in 1953 and the live-action Hook from Amblin/Tri-Star in 1991. In this new version of the story, Peter is left at an orphanage by his mother, Mary, and spends his early life there until he is whisked off to Neverland by Blackbeard and his troop of pirates who routinely kidnap young boys to labor in the pixie dust mines. Adventure ensues as Peter learns the true history of his family and a prophecy of a boy who would learn to fly.

Levi Miller who plays Peter convincingly captures and displays a sense of boyhood amidst the confusion, self-doubt, and ultimate determination that such a personal mystery unleashes in him. The use of Blackbeard over Hook as the villain allows Hugh Jackman to be completely forgettable and Garrett Hedlund to play a clean-cut James Hook who allies himself with Peter to escape from enslavement in the mines and romantically pursue Tigerlilly. To be honest, the Blackbeard/Hook swap is largely inconsequential plot-wise other than serving as useless prequel foreshadowing. It works out okay, but toward the end of the movie the dialogue between Pan and Hook feels overly forced when instead the implied path of their future relationship could have been more open-ended. Being that this movie is technically unrelated to any others, on one hand this could be a true prequel before the red and green-clad lads are enemies, or it could instead be an alternative story in which they remain allies.

The minor role of Mr. Smee was well-cast (Adeel Akhtar) and with the help of great costume and makeup really captures the look of Smee from Disney's animated Peter Pan, an homage to be sure. Rooney Mara as Tiger Lilly might be controversial and draw accusations of whitewashing, but as she's meant to be related to Peter in this version the fact that she was played by a white actress was appropriate, and aside from that I didn't care because she looked so damn good in the tribal makeup and costume. Perhaps that's superficial, but where Pan earns its stripes is in the visual department. Contemporary special effects are well-employed and provide nice contrast between the stark realism of mid-20th century London and the vibrant and fantastic Neverland. The backdrop amidst World War II bombings is one thing I was rather keen of from Disney's 2002 animated sequel Return to Neverland, and I was glad to see that carried over here. One of the rarely adapted characters from the original novel Peter and Wendy, Never Birds make an appearance (albeit as hungry antagonists) but their overtly CGI composition feels very out of place; they look like an enemy straight out of the Donkey Kong Country videogame series. This lapse was really only noticeable, however, due to the otherwise physical set in the encounter whereas the crocodile and mermaids fit in better with their respective water scene comprised of a variety of FX shots. The crocodile isn't integral to the story but provides one of the film's enduring visuals due to its sheer size and ability to propel itself skyward from the water's surface, an intimidating effect.

One particular and interesting creative choice is the film's use of the rock songs "It Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana and "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones. In the film, these two songs are chants sung by the Lost Boys while working for Blackbeard in the pixie dust mines. Although not original for meditating on the lyrics of "It Smells Like Teen Spirit" as Moulin Rouge! did it in 2001, the result is effective in creating the chilling effect that so many trailers with reworked pop songs go for these days (think "Once Upon a Dream" by Lana Del Rey in Maleficent, "California Dreamin'" by Sia in San Andreas, "Don't Panic" by Clairity in X-Men: Apocalypse, etc.) as well as naturally fitting in a short song in the midst of a non-musical film (unlike Christopher Walken/King Louie's "I Wanna Be Like You" in Disney's 2016 live-action The Jungle Book). Having late 20th century rock songs sung by the characters may seem prone to breaking immersion (and it probably did for many viewers), but I argue that the scene works quite well. For anyone who recognizes these songs, there's nothing subtle in the slightest in their inclusion, but upon critical assessment I began to speculate. Had Blackbeard somehow been to a future England and heard these hymnal classic rock ballads? Nirvana's multi-platinum Nevermind was released in 1991, the same year as Hook in which Peter Banning as portrayed by Robin Williams returned to Neverland, so could the music somehow have simultaneously crossed into Neverland then? Time is strange in Neverland, so perhaps none can say.

I think it's unfortunate that Pan was critically panned and performed poorly at the box office because whenever this happens it makes non-Disney studios more wary of tackling classic literary tales which have spent time in the Disney animated vault and causes consumers to be less willing to take a chance on different interpretations. I won't defend a movie just to be contra-Disney, but it's something I lament and resent that a release by Disney is viewed by audiences as obligatory and will be overpraised by critics and an adaptation of similar quality by another studio is seen as superfluous and will be widely overlooked.

Pan is not the ship I'll go down with, but I'll say outright that I enjoyed this movie and think it has enough merit that more people should see it. It doesn't quite stand on its own as it's reliant on the viewer's existing knowledge of Peter Pan, but the film plays off that knowledge to provide an interesting earlier look at the character and serve as a counterpart bookend on the opposite end of the timeline as Hook. For the few animated Disney features inspired by highly obscure or unheard of children's stories such as Dumbo or Lady and the Tramp, Disney can take full ownership as far as I'm concerned, but for the truly classic literary fiction (which applies to most of the vault), it's important that audiences remember the original sources and are open to different interpretations. Think of a happy thought (the big company staking recent claims won't prevent the likes of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass or The Jungle Book/The Second Jungle Book from seeing innovative and refreshing adaptations in the future from a variety of producers), and we can fly!

No comments:

Post a Comment