PAN. Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara. Directed Joe Wright. 111 minutes.Rated PG (Mild themes and violence, some scary scenes).
The screening that this reviewer attended was packed to the rafters with young families, trying to escape the rain outside and find a distraction during the first week of the school holidays. During the film, there were a few laughs and a few exclamations of surprise or fear, but no particularly memorable responses. Upon reflection, this seems an apt statement about the film itself – passable distraction for the young ones during the September-October break, but don’t expect them to demand a second viewing. Parents will be pleased by this, as there unfortunately isn’t much to enjoy for the chaperones.
Baby Peter is dropped at a British orphanage in the dead of night. Some years later, he has grown into a cheeky youth. In the titular role is Levi Miller, whose ability sadly doesn’t quite match his gusto, though his performance improves opposite his adult co-stars. World War II is in full swing, with bombing raids carried out over London, and orphans disappearing and presumed relocated to farms further inland. The nuns running the home are a motley collection of absurd caricatures, who essentially enslave their charges and steal their war rations. It had this reviewer wondering, why are orphanage-based nuns in Hollywood always either saints or monsters? Where’s the grey area?
It turns out that the missing orphans are being kidnapped by pirates in a flying galleon, and Peter too is whisked away. Their vessel is engaged in a dogfight by British planes, but they manage to escape, tearing through time and space to arrive in Neverland. The introduction is paced very briskly – so much happens in so little time, and writer Jason Fuchs appears to have introduced several subplots which were edited away in post-production. The skirmish with the British Air Force is impressive, however there is little sense other than it is a distracting set piece. We know that nothing will come of it, but the filmmakers needed something to cap off their introduction with a little vigour.
Enter the pirate Blackbeard, a charismatic but demented vaudeville star in the hands of Hugh Jackman, who has captured orphans the world over to put to work in his mine digging up fairy dust. His motivations are thinly explained – another subplot on the cutting room floor perhaps. Within a day, Peter has befriended James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), upset the veteran miners, and discovered that he can fly after being made to walk the plank. As mentioned, it’s a lightning paced film presumably designed for pre-teen attention spans. Peter escapes with Hook, and they emerge in the lands ruled by a native tribe.
Peter and Hook are swept up by local Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara – engaging but grappling with an accent) in a plot to save the Fairy Kingdom, and some further nonsensical twists transpire. Story wise it’s a bust, but technically this is where the film excels. Wright has always been a visually sumptuous and inventive director (see ‘Atonement’ or ‘Hanna’), and his costume and set designs are bold and striking, a smorgasbord of colour and dazzling spectacle. This alone won’t be enough to recommend the film, but it may sweeten the ordeal for any adults dragged along unwillingly.
It’s tempting to reach for a pun about ‘panning’ the film, but it’s not quite that bad. It’s fast-paced and visually beautiful, but ultimately disappoints with a flimsy story and a skittish inability to follow any of its plotlines to a satisfying conclusion. Approach with caution – perhaps best left for those desperate to entertain the children during the holidays.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 24.