Here goes my first movie review. I have a feeling it is going to take a couple of these until I settle into figuring out how I want to do these in general, what details I want to talk about, what order to put things, etc. This post mostly has what I wanted to talk about. A good reviewer should probably be concerned with what readers want to know. But I’m doing this mostly for me. Because I like dissecting movies. I don’t need anyone to read it. But I like writing it down.
There might be spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Living a bleak existence at a London orphanage, 12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller) finds himself whisked away to the fantastical world of Neverland. Adventure awaits as he meets new friend James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and the warrior Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). They must band together to save Neverland from the ruthless pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Along the way, the rebellious and mischievous boy discovers his true destiny, becoming the hero forever known as Peter Pan.
Initial Excitement Level: Moderately High.
I love all things Peter Pan (except the Disney animated one. I have hated that one since I was kid). I love themes and symbolism of the story. I also love prequels and origin stories. And this rendition has two actors I was really excited to see: Hugh Jackman as the main villain Blackbeard, and Garrett Hedlund as James Hook (not exactly a household name like Jackman, but I loved him as Patrocles in Troy, and Sam Flynn in Tron). And these actors were meant to play the villains (and personally, I’d much rather have interesting and well-acted villains than heroes.) So all in all, I went into the movie with high expectations.
I was disappointed.
Right at the beginning, an unknown female narrator says,
I’m going to tell you a story about a boy who would never grow up. About a Pirate who wished to kill him. About the island where fairies lived. But this isn’t the story you’ve heard before. Because sometimes friends begin as enemies, and enemies begin as friends. Sometimes to truly understand how things end, you must first know how they begin.
Not a bad intro. Except for the fact that it is COMPLETELY misleading. It promises a lot about the coming story. The only one it comes through on is this is definitely not a story any of us have heard before. Well, except it is, because it uses the oldest tropes and themes in the book (and I don’t mean J.M. Barry’s book)
I’m not entirely sure where to start.
The acting is… good (imagine me saying that tentatively and hesitantly). I mean, there are so many problems with the portrayal of characters, but the fault does not lie with the actors. It lies with the director and the creators of the film. Newcomer Levi Miller played his part well. Hugh Jackman will always put out an amazing performance. Rooney Mara (besides being white) was maybe a bit stiff, but the character can get away with it. It’s hard to know if Garrett Hedlund did well or not, because his character was so far off of what it should have been.
I will say that Neverland is about exactly what it should be. Wildly colorful, fantastic beasts, pirates and Indians at each other’s throats. Beautiful Mermaids, and Giant Crocodiles that would make any pirate duly afraid for life and limb. In short, a little boy’s dream and an adult’s nightmare. Which is what Neverland always was. Sometimes the Visual FX become overbearing and gharish. But Neverland is by and far the best part about this movie.
But overall, this movie violently bounces back and forth between ridiculously overtly “Peter Pan” and jarringly unfamiliar and confusing.
In fact, I spent a lot of time noticing how “Pan” seemed to directly rip off basically every other Peter Pan story ever told (Especially “Hook”), and I’m in a bit of a grey area deciding whether that is a bad thing or not. You’re dealing with same story being retold half a dozen times, after all. I can see how the director would want to build off what was already there instead of reinventing the wheel. Except for the fact that the director tried to both reinvent the wheel and use existing framework.
For instance: There were a lot of interesting choices made with the Indians (even completely passing over Tiger Lily being white). There is an overt “Peter Pan” feel with this group, but not necessarily in the right way. When the pirates attack and kill an Indian, they turn into… a brightly colored puff of smoke? Hook is forced into a death match with their hero (they made sure to make it quite clear that the loser dies) on… trampolines? And as this hero is showing off he strikes this pose:
I’m not sure why, but for some reason I found this incredibly reminiscent of Peter Pan in general (help me out, is this a pose Peter strikes in any other rendition?). All these things totally have a Neverland vibe. The problem, though, is that these particular effects really apply better to the Lost Boys (from Hook), with the brightly colored mud and food fights, fighting that is closer to playing, and full-of-himself hero. Seriously. I almost expected the Indians to start chanting “Rufio, Rufio. Ru-Fi-OOO!”
The Pirates were also… interesting. I’m not entirely sure why some of them looked like clowns. And I am really not sure why they made the slave boys sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Blitzkrieg Bop”.
Then you’ve got Blackbeard (put on brilliantly by Jackmon, no arguments there) himself. Who is Captian Hook in all but name… and hook.Slightly psychotic. Slightly gentlemanly. Supreme pirate ruler of his domain. Afraid of Crocodiles, Time, and Dying. He even steals several of Hook’s iconic lines (“Bad form” “Are you here to kill me, Peter?”). Why make a new villain (with a real villain’s name) who acts exactly like the classic villain? This decision might make sense if Hook actually spent any sort of significant time around Blackbeard, so it could be sold as Hook learning from him. But he doesn’t.
And speaking of Hook… Why does he act like Han Solo dressed as Indian Jones with a Jack Nicholson smile? (Seriously, he is exactly like Han. falls in with the heroes almost on accident, only cares about his own bottom line, not the fight for what is right. And a moment of redemption at the end. He is completely unrecognizable. Nothing Peter Pan-ish about him. The writers could have easily given him another name and it wouldn’t mess up the story at all. Which is a problem since this is supposed to be the origin story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook.
*Sidenote* Smee is perfect. Perfectly casted. Perfectly acted. And the role he played and the relationship he has with Hook makes perfect sense and answers how the cowardly, bumbling, idiot somehow got to be Hook’s first-mate. Hook might not make sense. But Smee’s relationship to him does.
And then there is Peter Pan himself. Who, like Hook, has absolutely nothing in common with the original character. Peter Pan the legend is the boy who never grew up. The boy who ran away from home as a baby. The boy who is cocky and self-sure, who believes, as all little boys do, that he is invincible.
Peter in this film is everything but. First, he comes off as the most tired rendition of two very tired tropes: The Chosen One and The Reluctant Hero. He is obsessed with finding his family. His overriding emotion is fear. Fear of heights and of flying. Fear that he can’t live up to the expectations the Indians place on his shoulders to lead them, and that he can’t fulfill prophecy that he will save the fairies (which of course he eventually shoulders his burden and does). Two things wrong with that last one. First, true Peter would play the hero for the sheer adventure of it. Second, true Peter would never be bothered by anyone’s expectations of him. That’s kinda the point. He does what he wants, because it’s fun, and refuses to take any responsibility.
Yes. I get that this is supposed to be a retelling and an origin. But the thing is, you can use creative licence to give the characters a new story. You cannot change the core of the characters themselves. Especially in a story like this, where the Story cannot exist without the Themes, and the Themes exist withing the characters themselves. Yes, in “Hook” Peter was not the classic Peter Pan. But it worked because we saw that Peter made a conscious choice to grow up, but then spent the rest of the movie trying to remember who the Pan was as a little boy, and Pan realizing why he chose to finally grow up. If you want to write an origin story, you have to lead into the existing idea. You can’t have a story about a boy coming-of-age before he becomes the child who says “I want to always be a little boy and have fun.”
I think the creators of the film were fully aware that they were changing important core elements. That they would potentially face critics who will say that this story has nothing to do with Peter Pan. So I think they tried to balance the story not being Peter Pan by making the world overtly visually Peter Pan. It wasn’t enough though. And it left way too many questions open, while a prequel is supposed to answer questions.
Summary: Let’s look back at the intro quote. “I’m going to tell you a story about a boy who would never grow up. About a Pirate who wished to kill him. About the island where fairies lived. But this isn’t the story you’ve heard before. Because sometimes friends begin as enemies, and enemies begin as friends. Sometimes to truly understand how things end, you must first know how they begin.”
Peter did grow up. He became a leader and hero.
Hook doesn’t become a pirate, so it must mean Blackbeard. Blackbeard didn’t really wish to kill Peter. He just wanted to kill the fairies.
There were no enemies who became friends.
There were no friends who became enemies. I would have at least thought that this movie would show how Pan and Hook ended up on opposite sides. But it ends up with them both sharing a laugh on the Jolly Roger.
Seeing this beginning story doesn’t tell me how the story of Peter Pan ends. In fact, there is absolutely no attempt at reconciliation. Which to me makes this is an alternate story that takes place in Neverland, with characters who just so happen to be named Peter and Hook, not the origin story of Peter Pan and Captain Hook.
But this is in fact a story we haven’t heard before. It probably should’ve stayed that way.
Visual Effects: 2/3