There’s a moment in Pan’s first act when one realizes that even children’s movies about interdimensional flying pirate ships usually have at least some logic to them — and that Pan feels free to toss said logic overboard without a second thought.
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It’s sometime in the middle of World War II, and the film’s namesake protagonist has just arrived in Neverland. Abducted from his London orphanage, Peter (Levi Miller) learns that his captor is a marauder turned mining baron with the highly original name of Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Thousands of Peter’s future coworkers take a break from mining fairy dust, because this is a Disney movie, and join together in song, because this is really a Disney movie. (Though technically Disney-adjacent, since it’s a product of Warner Brothers adapting a story popularized by Disney rather than Disney’s studio itself.) Normal enough! And that’s when it becomes apparent exactly what they’re singing:
“WITH THE LIGHTS OUT, IT’S LESS DANGEROUS!
HERE WE ARE NOW, ENTERTAIN US!
I FEEL STUPID, AND CONTAGIOUS!
HERE WE ARE NOW, ENTERTAIN US!”
Pan takes place more than 60 years ago in a parallel universe without popular culture, and the centerpiece of its soundtrack is a knockoff Kidz Bop cover of Nirvana.
The laugh-out-loud absurdity of this is Pan in a nutshell, and not just because it’s a ludicrous attempt to modernize a franchise that doesn’t need modernizing. Instead, the sudden appearance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — upstaged just minutes later by a reprise of the scene, this time with “Blitzkrieg Bop” — makes it painfully obvious that Pan has no idea who it’s for or how to appeal to them. Believe me when I say the only thing more depressing than bastardized Nirvana in a semi-authorized Peter Pan prequel is witnessing it in a theater full of ten-year-olds who’ve never heard the original and thus don’t get the (accidental) joke.
Before Pan fills up with cringeworthy details like these, however, it’s largely a paint-by-numbers origin story grafted onto J.M. Barrie’s beloved children’s book. Like Hook before it, Pan is totally apocryphal, hijacking Barrie’s characters and abandoning his mythology whenever it likes. According to Barrie, Peter is the child of two ordinary humans; in Pan, he’s the product of a magical union between his warrior mother and a “fairy prince.” He discovers this after a childhood spent under the care of some cartoonishly mean nuns who seem to treat Ms. Hannigan’s Manual for Running a Seriously Unpleasant Orphanage like a second Bible.
To help deal with Blitz-induced overcrowding, the nuns have somehow struck a deal with Blackbeard’s pirate gang. (How did that initial meeting go? “We come from a different universe, which holds some pretty dire implications for the belief system that dictates your entire lifestyle. On the bright side, we can help you with that extra orphan problem!”) So off Peter goes to Neverland, where he discovers — what else? — that he’s the subject of a prophecy about
The Boy Who Lived a boy who can fly and is destined to kill off Blackbeard, who’s using fairy dust to stay young in a plot device presumably modeled off Jackman’s IRL anti-aging regimen.
Under writer Jason Fuchs and director Joe Wright, taking a break from gorgeous period adaptations to cash a Disney paycheck or three, Pan‘s supporting players get makeovers as well. Captain Hook (Garrett Hedlund) is an Indiana Jones knockoff who barks lines like, “I’m not your friend, kid!” at Peter. Tinkerbell is just a floating speck of CGI. And, oh yes, Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) is white.
About that: the “tribal” (the script is oh-so-careful to avoid calling them “Native Americans,” as if sticking to “natives” or “the tribe” is any better) scenes are exactly what the Internet feared they would be. As Blackbeard’s main antagonists, they live in a Technicolor village that looks like an Urban Outfitters had a baby with the Mardi Gras aisle at Party City. They’re multiethnic — Mara and Jack Charles, who plays her father, are white, while Korean actor Na Tae-Joo shows up as a warrior type — but fulfill the “guardians of nature” stereotype to a T. In other words, they’re as badly suited to 2015 as a random Nirvana cover.
Along with Oz: The Great and Powerful, Pan is one of the foot soldiers in an incursion of Disney live-action remakes with… varying levels of promise. Oz is already cleared for a sequel, and based on its laughably open-ended conclusion, so is Pan; Alex Ross Perry is helming Winnie the Pooh, Game of Thrones’ Bryan Cogman is working on The Sword and the Stone, and Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book is imminent. But while there’s no reason said remakes can’t be worthwhile — I’m as excited to see what the man behind Nathaniel P: The Movie does with Pooh as anyone — Pan doesn’t bode well for what’s to come.
Because between the inadvertently hilarious and the downright offensive, Pan is a generic mold for a reboot that shares little with the original beyond a handful of proper nouns. The thematic darkness inherent in Peter’s refusal to grow up is scrubbed out entirely in favor of a standard Chosen One narrative, propelled by Miller’s cutesy camp and filled in with dialogue that’s mostly exposition, rendered in that awful dialect that happens when Americans try to write British vernacular (“Bloomin’ ‘eck!”). Ultimately, it’s a string of familiar names arranged into a movie — and while “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may be its low point, it’s ultimately one of Pan‘s only distinguishing moments.
Pan is out in wide release on Friday, October 9.