Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
In fairness to the naysayers, naming a film “Pan” really is asking for it. The amount of critics who panned Pan (2015) using pan puns made me wonder if some of these writers didn’t hate the movie as much as they purported to, but merely couldn’t resist the urge to use the title for a little bit of linguistic fun. The title does, however, also allude to the compelling central mystery of this story: how a young orphan with no surname became the legendary cultural touchstone that is Peter Pan.
Directed by Joe Wright of Atonement fame (and more recently, The Darkest Hour), Pan offers more than just an enticing origin story. It’s a colorful, whimsical romp into Neverland, and Warner Bros. Studios deliberately promoted the film as one that was produced by the same studio that brought the magical Harry Potter world to life. The Potter overtones are certain there, but during my viewing of the film I was more reminded of The Golden Compass, which luxuriates in mystical (albeit computer-generated) images while also keeping one toe entrenched in our own world. Make no mistake, Pan is most definitely PG when it comes to fantasy violence and personal trauma, and the movie shines most brightly as a lighthearted emporium of wonder, but there is an important emotional journey at stake as well.
The story of Peter Pan is timeless and universal; we all long, at least on some level, to escape to the world of fairytales. Yet at the beginning of Pan, young Peter (played by newcomer Levi Miller, who co-stars in Ava DuVernay’s upcoming A Wrinkle in Time adaptation) is not dreaming of otherworldly grandeur; he really just longs to find his mother (Amanda Seyfried), who left him on the steps of London’s Lambeth Home for Boys 12 years earlier with a necklace of silver pipes and a letter professing her love for him. Peter and his partner-in-crime, a boy called Nibs, cause oodles of trouble for the nasty, scheming nuns who serve as their caretakers, sneaking around one nun’s office while everyone else is seeking shelter from World War II bombers. As Peter, Levi Miller is instantaneously magnetic, a fireball of prepubescent energy and invincibility. Nibs is also quite endearing, and it’s a shame his character disappears for most of the movie, since he’s played by Lewis MacDougall, who was absolutely magnetic in last year’s heartwrenching A Monster Calls.
But before all that – the crafty duo discovers the nun’s hidden stash of food rations, gorging themselves as only little boys can before moving onto the juicy stuff: the orphans’ files. Peter’s file contains the letter his mother left with him, and he asks Nibs to read it out loud, as the words begin to jumble before Peter’s eyes. “Don’t doubt me,” Peter’s mother wrote, “But most importantly, don’t doubt yourself.” Miller’s face betrays a thousand emotions, and this scene stands out as the most poignant of the film: it sets up the tension between what Peter wants – to find his mother – and what he needs – to find himself. In addition, the entire opening sequence that takes place in London is suffused with additional resonance because of what we know about the character; at the beginning, Peter is one of the lowest members of society at one of the darkest times in human history, but he is destined to become a fearless leader in a land of eternal brightness. That disconnect fuels much of the film’s storytelling engine, and it’s an enticing contrast.
But Peter does not exactly travel to Neverland voluntarily. It turns out the nuns are in cahoots with some pirates who come at night to snatch the boys out of their beds and through the orphanage windows, tossing them onto a flying pirate ship. The sequence undoubtedly would have been sinister were it not for composer John Powell’s percussive, adventurous score, which encourages us to jump along for the ride. (I also praised Powell’s music in my column on How To Train Your Dragon – clearly he has a knack for scoring flying scenes!) What follows is a jolly chase through the skies of London, with bomber planes trying in vain to blast the speedy ship out of the sky. Eventually, the ship flies too high for even the planes, and before we know it, we’re in Neverland. Peter earns the biggest laugh of the film with his wide-eyed, wondrous query: “Is this… Canada?”
The visual aesthetic of Neverland is gloriously imaginative: there are enormous, floating water pods, greenery as far as the eye can see, and later on, exposition is delivered through beautifully animated woodcuts and swirling currents from the Mermaid Lagoon. As Peter and the other orphans arrive, there is also a diegetic chorus chanting “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” because, why not? This gives way to the introduction of the film’s big bad: the fearsome ruler Blackbeard, played to manic, goth perfection by a mustachioed Hugh Jackman. In one area of Neverland, Blackbeard runs a tight ship (so to speak): day after day, he forces his people to mine for fairy dust, which, we find out later, he uses to prevent himself from aging. In a smart allusion to Peter’s eventual fate, Blackbeard’s pursuit of immortality presents a fascinating parallel to Peter’s character: both, in a very real sense, refuse to ever “grow up.”
Peter soon runs into another miner: one James Hook, destined to become Peter’s mortal enemy. As embodied by Garrett Hedlund, this younger Hook is like a swaggering, faux-chivalrous cowboy with a gruff exterior and a secret heart of gold. He’s an archetype, sure, but he’s also a fun foil for Peter, and the two have great chemistry when they escape together after Peter runs afoul of Blackbeard. You see: As revealed by Blackbeard, Peter is believed to be the child of a prophecy – the son of a fairy prince and a human woman who is predicted to bring Blackbeard down. And so, to find out the truth about his mother – and himself – Peter must find a group of natives, led by the fierce and fearsome chief’s daughter, Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).
The “natives” plotline is more than a little bit cringe-worthy, since it undeniably casts Peter as the “white savior,” and because Mara’s role, traditionally portrayed as Native American, spurred a vicious debate over whitewashing in film. Without discounting the very real concerns surrounding these issues, there is some good that comes of this plot as well: Tiger Lily, for one, is a total badass. She’s a capable warrior and a respected leader, and she keeps a cool head in a crisis. She refuses to be swayed by Hook’s fumbling attempts at flirting. Oh, and her colorful ensemble, especially the headdress reminiscent Naboo’s finest from the Star Wars prequels, make her look pretty epic while kicking all that pirate booty. What’s more, though Peter’s mom is initially spoken of as a sort of damsel in distress, she is later revealed to have been a strong fighter with strong morals – and, of course, a strong heart.
Pan does not, unfortunately, give us an origin story for Hook as well – the film ends with the two still friends, and the characters wink at the audience with a mischievous closing line of “what could possibly go wrong?” The film does, however, offer a couple of fun easter eggs that point to the iconic Peter Pan stories of the future: Blackbeard dryly telling Peter to “think a happy thought” before pushing him off the plank, Peter fittingly declaring that he’s not going to leave Neverland, and several beloved characters making cameos: Sam “Smee” Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar) tags along for some of the adventure, Peter has a run-in with a fairy named Tinkerbell, and a certain very, very large crocodile makes a brief but memorable appearance.
As far as origin stories go, Pan is a beautiful ode to a cultural icon and a delightful visual feast. Though the film is undoubtedly geared towards children, it takes aim at the child inside all of us, too. Pan opens the door to Neverland and invites us, once again, to believe in fairies.