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Pan

The origin story of Peter Pan is surprisingly dark, visually spectacular and full of Scary Hugh Jackman.
By Tom Glasson
September 25, 2015
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By Tom Glasson
September 25, 2015
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Mad Max: Fury Road for kids.

That’s how PAN ought to have been billed, but instead the studios went with “Every legend has a beginning”. Bit of a truism, but whatever. At least it sets us up with the expectation that PAN will give us the gritty, untold Peter Pan backstory, and — true to its word — on that point it does deliver. Curiously, though, it then leaves much of the remaining (and arguably more interesting) information untouched, rendering PAN more like the ‘beginning of the beginning of the legend’.

So who is Peter? Well, in this latest version by director Joe Wright (Atonement), he’s an English orphan enduring the worst of the Nazis’ WWII blitz campaign over London. We learn his ninja-like mother lovingly deposited him at the orphanage as a baby, along with a pan flute necklace and a mysterious letter speaking of hopeful reunions in a far away land. Now as a 12-year-old (played by Aussie newcomer and definite star of the future Levi Miller), Peter discovers the letter but has scarcely a moment to process the information before he’s whisked away by pirates in the middle of the night and transported to Neverland, where his true story begins.

The thing is, Neverland isn’t as we remember it. Here in Wright’s version, it’s a colossal mining pit populated by hundreds of thousands of orphan workers all searching for a rare mineral called Pixum — essentially the raw form of pixie dust. Their overseer is a deliciously evil and charismatic pirate named Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who we first meet amid a bizarre rendition of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

As he addresses his bedraggled slaves and enforcers from up high and promises them untold riches (or at the very least, confectionary), the comparisons to Fury Road’s Immortan Joe are hard to ignore, particularly when PAN then descends into something of an extended chase scene for the remainder of the film. Still, in this pit we meet all but one of the future figures who’ll feature prominently in the Peter Pan legend, most notably Smee (Adeel Akhtar) and Hook (Garrett Hedlund, turning in what represents a solid audition piece for the next Indiana Jones film, albeit with an accent borrowed straight from There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview). Together, the trio escapes the pit into Neverland’s untamed jungle and goes in search of Pan’s mother with Blackbeard giving relentless pursuit.

PAN is the very definition of ‘family-friendly movie’, what with its non-stop action pieces, colourful costumes and entirely palatable violence (when the friendly ‘savages’ are killed, they explode into puffs of brilliantly coloured powder, much like the ‘how it works’ section of a detergent commercial). The special effects are extensive but first-rate, remaining impressively clutter free in that you can always identify the focal point of any scene (compared to the epilepsy-inducing offerings of films like Transformers). Performance wise, the leads (including Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily) all do their best with what’s a regrettably threadbare script, and Jackman probably finds the most out of his character, switching back and forth between homicidal and nurturing so effortlessly that it’s unsettling.

There are really only two major shortcomings in PAN, but combined they do a lot to detract from what could have been something truly special. Firstly, it’s all very dour for something that’s set in Neverland, a place where fun is not just a pastime but a mantra and an obligation. Secondly, for a backstory on the Pan legend, we not only end up with very little new information, but — if anything — more questions than before. Case in point: the relationship between Peter and Hook. PAN’s prologue explains “sometimes friends begin as enemies, and enemies begin as friends”, but by the film's finale we see the two characters as close as any two friends could be, even going so far as to laugh about anything to the contrary. How and why such allies become mortal enemies would have made for an excellent plot progression, and it’s hard not to think this was excluded for the presumptive 'prequel sequel’. Still, it’s a wonderful visual experience that’s sure to delight young and old alike.

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