Friday, 16 October 2015

Pan (2015) - Movie Review

In today’s day and age that everyone likes to think is where the practice of rampant recycling of media to create movies started, said recycling can take different forms. One of these is the oh-so-awesome prequel, easily the least successful of all of them. I mean, when online lists of the ‘best’ film prequels frequently bring up Star Wars, you know that the standards for quality aren’t exactly high amongst this pedigree. An offspring of this is the origin story, a film based around a beloved franchise character and how they became the one that we love to this day. Of course, once again, recent examples of this aren’t too promising: X-Men Origins Wolverine managed to ruin the reputation of more than just the title character, Dumb And Dumberer was about as pointless as you can get and Maleficent, while I personally liked it, was a major flop with critics and audiences. Hell, bring up the words ‘horror movie prequel’ in a crowded room and someone is bound to re-enact one of them using you as the victim; some people take this stuff a little too seriously. With all this in mind, ever since today’s film was announced as an origin story for that legendary Lost Boy Peter Pan, I was immediately sceptical (A shocking development, I know) about how well it would work out. And then I actually saw the thing… oh boy.

The plot: Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan in World War II-era Britain. After being abducted by pirates, he is sent to the far-off world of Neverland to be made into a miner under the eye of the pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). After discovering that he may be part of a prophecy to bring back the reign of the fairy kingdom and end Blackbeard’s tyranny, he escapes the pirates with the help of fellow miner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) for the tribal lands. With the help of native Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), he sets out to stop Blackbeard once and for all and, just maybe, find his missing mother.

The casting here is suspect to say the least. Hugh Jackman, who’s probably played the straight-up villain all of one other time in his career back in Chappie, seriously looks like he doesn’t know how to mix the menace and mirth his character has been written with. However, it at least looks like he’s having fun playing this (at times) over the top pirate, and his charisma on-screen even manages to make back-breaking labour in the mines sound oddly appealing. Levi Miller is… passable as Peter Pan; nothing too special but he isn’t bad by any stretch in the role either. Easily the best performance here goes to Garrett Hedlund, in terms of entertainment value, as he goes through the film like he’s on death row and he asked for the scenery as his last meal. His exaggerated Southern(?) accent and constantly bared teeth make for deliciously camp viewing. Rooney Mara may have some questionable implications behind her casting, but she’s more than capable of portraying a warrior woman and pulling off the action beats she’s given.

And speaking of Mara, time to delve into the big sticking point of this film for most people. Now, speaking personally here, I’ve learnt to just stop complaining when it comes to re-casting people in films as different ethnicities as the source material; not everyone envisions a character in their head as is explicitly described when reading a book, after all. However, here is where I put my foot down for one simple reason: Given the history behind this one character, from What Makes The Red Man Red to Ugg-a-Wugg, you’d think that by 2015 that we would have learnt our lesson by now. But no, instead we continue with the Tiger Lily White casting decisions that, in today’s overtly-PC society, you’d think would have made someone turn to Joe Wright and tell him point-blank that he should reconsider this idea. Not that Wright doesn’t attempt to make up for this oversight, though, as the rest of Tiger Lily’s tribe is made up primarily from non-white actors ranging from Indian to Aboriginal Australian.

As much as I’d like to give credit to this idea, it fails to work for two very crucial reasons. For one, it doesn’t address the fact that the most prominent member of the tribe, the only one who even has a name, is played by easily the whitest actor in the entire film. For another, in its feeble attempt to address a particular racial casting stereotype, it ends up reinforcing another one entirely where "a native's a native/they're all the same anyway" with how haphazard the casting is. Rather than trying to correct past errors, it seems like Wright was attempting to do worse.

The idea of doing an entire film centred on the origin of Peter Pan, especially considering how well Spielberg’s Hook managed to portray that story in just a single scene, is already on an uneven footing. It doesn’t help that writer Jason Fuchs fittingly Fuchs up this idea by seemingly copy-pasting plot beats from countless other stories, starting right off the bat with a ‘this is the real story’ opening narration spiel ripped straight out of Maleficent. From there, it proceeds to snowball downhill at record speeds with a London orphanage where you expect the characters to break out into a rendition of Food, Glorious Food any minute, complete with an ornery overweight adult running the place.

Then, as we enter Neverland… well, here’s where I give credit for something original. Then again, this is something so out of left field, so weird, so unbelievably stupid, that I legitimately began to question whether someone had spiked my drink on the way in. Blackbeard leads the miners and the other pirates into a rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Along with worrying about having dropped acid without my knowledge, this also marks the closest I’ve ever reached of just flat-out leaving the cinema mid-film. Now, if this was a recurring motif involving anachronistic music, like in A Knight’s Tale, then this might have worked. However, except for a later scene where they sing Blitzkrieg Bop, this is just a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment that ends up doing nothing for the film, in terms of plot or theme. The only possible explanation I can think of for this is because the chants in those respective songs (Hello and Hey, Ho, Let’s Go) kind of sound like chants found in sea shanties, but even then, that is a stretch for a pretty insignificant part of the film.

After the frenzied haze wears off from watching pirates singing grunge, it essentially devolves into James Cameron’s Avatar. And no, this isn’t even a case of my inexperience showing and immediately pointing at Avatar, considering it’s only a recent example of an often-used racial relation plot. Given the child miners looking for pixium, or pixie dust if you’re sensible, Blackbeard’s hunting after ‘the tribals’ and the needless conservationist theme running throughout the film; no question, it’s Avatar. To make things even worse, the reason why Blackbeard wants the pixie dust is even vaguer than the reason for the unobtainium. The best I can figure is that, given Blackbeard’s obsession with avoiding death and that we watch him inhaling pixie dust at one point (art imitating life in the writer’s room for this thing, I’m guessing), it may be responsible for Neverland’s lack of aging; not that this is explained in any way clearly, mind you. Actually, the characterisation all round is pretty wonky. Blackbeard probably comes out the best written, but that’s only because he has something resembling nuance unlike everyone else in the film.

Peter falls victim to the chosen one monotone monomyth that is older than the Earth itself, and he and James Hook, despite this being a prequel to the original story, don’t get anywhere close to how they are in the story that we actually like. If anything, the film actively taunts the audience that they are waiting for further sequels to flesh out the story, resulting in easily one of the most insulting endings I’ve seen this year. Of course, given how Hook is the only character who seems to have a head on his shoulders, I can easily see him just snapping after being around these people for too long. This is especially true of Adeel Akhtar as Mr. Smee, whose name always make me think of Kryten from Red Dwarf failing to say smeghead and here, that is justifiable because he is a bona fide smeghead throughout the entire film; way to downgrade him from being Hook’s voice of reason in every other iteration of the story. As for Tiger Lily, the only thing we really get in terms of development is a romantic connection between her and Hook. I’m guessing that this is because all films needs a romance subplot by law because, otherwise, there is no reason for this to exist. That, and a moment where she starts echoing the sentiments of the nun who ran the London orphanage, except we’re supposed to sympathize with them this time because teaching kids to be hypocritical is a great idea(!)

Of course, I was willing to kinda-sorta forgive films like Jupiter Ascending for their weak writing because they pulled off spectacle; surely I can do the same here, right?. Well, what a shame then that the effects work sucks so much; not since I, Frankenstein have I seen CGI that looks this cheap. From the very plastic attempts at rending human actors, to the fact that it can be legitimately difficult to see what’s going on in some scenes like in the pool of convenient flashbacks (or pool of memories, as the film calls it), the action scenes constantly fall short. It doesn’t help said effects are used so readily, to the point of where they descend into the realm of Asylum-level laziness in their use. When you feel the need to CGI a person’s reflection in water, something that any layman can film on their smartphone without issue, you need more Fuchs to give your production before you think of making a film. Given how this is Joe Wright’s first attempt at a family-friendly film, I can only guess that he made the same mistake countless other filmmakers have and just assumed that quote-unquote “pretty” visuals will distract children enough to keep them entertained; basically, the mindset that does nothing but hurt the reputation of child-friendly entertainment.

All in all, this is astoundingly bad. It seriously feels like no one ultimately cared about this film behind the scenes, given the plot that’s stapled together from pieces of other, better films, the casting that shows that we haven’t learnt a damn thing from past iterations of Peter Pan and the effects work that makes me miss the days of Mega Piranha. Alan Moore’s Lost Girls did a better job of telling and reinterpreting the story of Peter Pan, and that was a friggin’ porn comic. It’s rare that I actively want a film to bomb, but if this is how Wright and Fuchs want to start a supposed series, I think it’d better for everyone if this just went the way of Terminator: Salvation and was left forgotten.

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