Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: "Pan"

The latest big-screen iteration of the Peter Pan legend is rather a mess, but it’s an exhilarating mess. “Pan” mixes astonishing CG action, plucky kids, goofy musical interludes with modern pop songs, and Hugh Jackman as a fey villain who looks like he got kicked out of a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” audition.

The result is a thrill ride of a movie by parts giddy and scary, a joyful exercise in prodigious imagineering. It’s the rare kids’ movie that parents may actually prefer.

The story – screenplay by Jason Fuchs, based on the J.M. Barrie characters -- is essentially a prequel/retcon of the Peter Pan mythology. We’re pre-Wendy & Co. here, focusing instead on how a cheeky British orphan first became the tights-wearing, flying, smirking never-grow-upper.

Most of the familiar gang is here: Smee, Tinkerbell, Lost Boys, Princess Tiger Lily, etc. But they’re living in a despoiled Neverland much grimmer than what we’re used to. The biggest curveball is James Hook, still young and unhooked, who throws off the shackles of his innate cynicism to become Peter’s ally and best friend.

(No hint as to how their relationship and his hand came to be, uh, detached.)

It’s a corker of a performance by Garrett Hedlund, who manages to suggest some of the verbal idiosyncrasies and vanity of Captain Hook, but with a cowboy American bent. He wears a long duster coat and an Indiana Jones hat, flirts shamelessly with Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and regards Peter as a wayward kid brother.

Levi Miller plays Peter, and he’s solid in the role, blue eyes perpetually wide, though the character as written is a bit generic and bland. He’s the window through which we experience this fantastical world, and -- as is so often the case with this kind of moviemaking -- the frame is not meant to draw the eye.

The real head-turner – and scratcher, as some will see it – is Jackman’s pirate Blackbeard. He’s just… well, his own thing. He wears extravagant Renaissance-style costumes, has a ghostly pallor and feral teeth, and the dark circles around his eyes are so deep it seems like he’s staring at you from out of a graveyard hole. He’s part tyrant, part fop, all wicked.

Blackbeard, having defeated the faeries of Neverland in a war, is mining every speck of the island for remnants of their dust, or pixin, which he uses for his secret and nefarious purposes. He dispatches his flying pirate ships into the “real world” – England during WWII – to nab orphan boys to be used as laborers in his mines. Peter, who was left as a babe on the steps of the Lambeth Home for Boys by his mum along with a pan flute locket, is one such snatchee.

His introduction to Neverland is ostentatious, and odd. In a vast mining pit where boys toil with pickaxes, they pause in their labors to exalt Blackbeard with an a capella rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with the great pirate joining in himself. The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” gets similar use for a battle scene.

Usually in movie musical scenes people sing to address somebody else, or narrate their own actions, but here Blackbeard and crew are essentially serenading themselves for its own sake. Maybe it would’ve worked better if it was more consistent, but just those two tunes are employed.

To paraphrase Robert Downey Jr.’s character in “Tropic Thunder,” you should either go full musical, or not bother.

Peter bumps into James, who possibly has been mining there since he was a boy himself, and is rather sour about it. They soon bust out together, with perennial sidekick Smee (Adeel Akhtar) tagging along, fall in with Tiger Lily and the Indians, who here are a full multicultural gamut of castoffs. Peter, who has demonstrated nascent flying abilities, is embraced as their Chosen One who will free the banished faeries from the secret hidey place.

Director Joe Wright is best known for costume dramas like “Atonement,” “Pride & Prejudice” and “Anna Karenina.” But he seems to have found his inner child with this film, relishing high adventure and fantasy without reservation.

I don’t doubt some will find “Pan” weird and off-putting. But if you’re willing to view Barrie’s writings as inspiration rather than sacred text, you’ll find a delightful spree that captures the quintessence of childlike wonder.

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