Friday, October 9, 2015

Pan: Soaring adventure

Pan (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, for fantasy action violence

By Derrick Bang

Old-style, kid-centric adventure films — those akin to Disney’s In Search of the Castaways or Richard Donner’s The Goonies — have become rare.

Today’s studio heads too frequently taint the formula with coarse humor and/or needlessly unpleasant violence, either (giving them the benefit of the doubt) in a misguided effort to court parents, or (more cynical, but more likely) to obtain the “tougher” PG-13 rating that generally does better business than a family-friendly PG.

Peter (Levi Miller, right) anticipates certain doom once he's forced off the ship's plank by
the dread Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, in black). But although the boy doesn't yet know
it, he possesses a magic talent that will surprise everybody...
Which makes director Joe Wright’s Pan something of a minor miracle. It’s a throwback to kinder, gentler times, when young champions relied on pluck and resourcefulness, rather than sarcasm and potty humor. Scripter Jason Fuchs’ imaginative fantasy is a thrilling ride from start to finish: laden with stalwart heroes and opulently dastardly villains, wildly imaginative locales and a high-spirited adolescent hero who could have stepped from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel (with a detour that L. Frank Baum would have appreciated).

Fuchs’ story speculates on a question that might have occurred to young fans of Scottish novelist/playwright J.M. Barrie’s celebrated “boy who wouldn’t grow up.” It’s a tantalizing query: How did Peter Pan become himself?

Fuchs, making a respectable big-screen solo scripting debut, plays with elements of Barrie’s original mythos, while borrowing scenarios and character archetypes from other fantasy sources. The crazy-quilt result is a bit uneven at times, but Wright and editors William Hoy and Paul Tothill keep things moving so rapidly, that you’re not likely to mind.

The action begins at London’s bleak Lambeth Home for Boys, during the height of the WWII blitz, where 12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller, doing an excellent job in his feature debut) and his fellow youngsters are routinely terrorized by Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), the imperious and just-plain-mean nun who runs the place. Peter has long suspected that Mother Barnabas has been hoarding all the tasty food rations while forcing the children to subsist on gruel, but in truth her perfidy is much, much worse.

Aside from these suspicions regarding the orphanage provisions, the bigger issue concerns the ongoing — and unexplained — disappearances of a few boys each night. The answer to that question proves calamitous, when Peter is among those snatched the next time around. He finds himself on (of all things) a pirate ship floating high above, which “sails” air currents the way an ordinary vessel would navigate the seven seas.

But before watching all concerned sail away to Neverland, we first endure a rather weird interlude as the pirate ship battles several British Spitfires that have been sent to battle what the RAF assumes is a large Nazi bomber. This grim and tasteless “real world” sequence — particularly when the ship’s cannons destroy one of the planes — yanks us right out of the story’s otherwise fanciful elements.

I can’t imagine what Fuchs and Wright were thinking, aside from the incongruity of seeing a floating ship trying to dodge small planes. The whole WWII backdrop is arbitrary and entirely unnecessary, as it plays no significant role in what follows; the filmmakers should have stuck to the much earlier 20th century setting that Barrie gave his characters.


That aside...

Once brought to the amazing floating continent of Neverland, Peter and the other new conscripts join hundreds of others in darkened mines, hammering at walls in the hopes of finding small chunks of the glowing “pixum” — hardened pixie dust — craved by The Man In Charge. That would be Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), the meanest, baddest pirate in the land ... his eccentric behavior and outlandishly foppish attire notwithstanding.

Some of the mine workers have been around for years, notably James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a self-centered survivor who nonetheless takes a shine to Peter. That doesn’t help much when the boy runs afoul of Blackbeard on the very first day, and is forced to walk a plank to certain doom. But Peter doesn’t go splat on the ground far below, because — hey, check it out! — he suddenly demonstrates the ability to fly.

Which actually is worse, as far as Blackbeard is concerned. Ancient prophecy promises that a boy who can fly will come to the aid of all Neverland natives and fairies, against whom the dread pirate and his men have long battled. A few hair’s-breadth escapes later, Peter and his new allies — Hook and bumbling Sam Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar) — meet up with Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and her father (Jack Charles), the village chief.

Cue even more escapades, not to mention encounters with everything from mermaids to skeletal neverbirds. Matters threaten to become overly complicated, but it doesn’t matter; we need only remember that Blackbeard and his men are Bad, while everybody else is Good.

Young Miller makes a wonderful hero, his expressive little face often a mask of false bravado that barely conceals the terror we can read in his eyes. Peter’s gift of flight notwithstanding — and he can’t control that very well — he’s a recognizably “ordinary” boy who suffers abandonment issues and desperately craves a kind-hearted father figure.

Hedlund’s Hook definitely isn’t the guy to fit that bill, although nobody will be surprised by the eventual thaw that melts his tougher edges. Hook’s relationship with the boy is droll, particularly since it’s so contrary to what we know of established Peter Pan lore.

But although Hedlund and Miller are good together, the former’s take on his character is a blatant riff on Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones: down to the way Hedlund delivers his lines, along with the Indiana-esque wardrobe — complete with an oft-askew fedora — that costume designer Jacqueline Durran has put together.

Hedlund’s faux Indy manner remains distracting throughout the entire film.

Durran is much more original with Blackbeard’s hilariously garish wardrobe (all black, of course) and the wildly colorful, slightly “dusty,” indigenous-type clothing for Tiger Lily and her people. (Think Chinese Opera meets West Africa.)

Jackman is marvelous as the gleefully wicked Blackbeard, with physical grace to match his verbal dexterity. The actor walks a delicate line: Every time we’re inclined to dismiss Blackbeard as an embroidered buffoon, Jackman’s eyes shift to reveal truly scary menace. He’s frightening precisely because he is so grotesque.

Mara displays spunk and vigorous warrior chops as Tiger Lily, and the actress does her best with some of Fuchs’ cornier dialogue. (Poor Tiger Lily gets stuck with all the fortune-cookie lines: “If you don’t believe, Peter, then neither will they.”)

Akhtar is a hoot as the conniving Smiegel, and Nonso Anozie is appropriately ferocious as Blackbeard’s lieutenant. Amanda Seyfried will be recognized as the young woman who deposits the infant Peter at the orphanage, leaving him with a kiss, a note and a pan flute charm on a string around his neck.

John Powell’s orchestral score adds to the atmosphere of playful derring-do; Aline Bonetto’s production design and Mark Holt’s special effects make Neverland a truly magical place.

Wright has a flair for inventive staging and narrative momentum; his films often dazzle — Pride & Prejudice and Atonement come to mind — simply by virtue of the way they’re put together. He and Oscar-nominated cinematographers John Mathieson and Seamus McGarvey do similarly stylish work with Pan, giving us a larkish escapade that charms not merely because of the tale, but also the way in which it’s told.

I worry, though, that Wright’s old-style thrills may not find enough viewers to recoup its well-spent $150 million budget.

Fingers crossed...

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