Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2015


Peter and the misplaced messiah complex

Confused misfire 'Pan' places its legendary hero in a sadly banal context

Warner Bros.
Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Jason Fuchs, based on characters created by J.M. Barrie
Starring: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Adeel Akhtar, Nonso Anozie and Amanda Seyfried
Rated PG / 1 hour, 51 minutes
October 9, 2015
(out of four)

Let's consider this a rule. If it's your job to resurrect, re-imagine or revitalize a legendary character, and what you come up with is something along the lines of "There's an ancient prophecy..." - then you've already run out of ideas. Rip it up, start over. Find a new line of work if you must.

For an existing character with a rich mythology already on the books, transplanting it into a "chosen one" origin story is the laziest thing you can possibly do. Telling us that Batman will fulfill a prophecy about a child who grows up to avenge his parents and save a corrupt city would not make Batman a more interesting character. Finding out that it was foretold in an ancient scroll that Ellen Ripley would fight an alien queen does not add any compelling dimension to Ellen Ripley's character. If anything, this only traps those characters in narratives that largely strip them of their agency.

There's a strange tendency to place recurring characters (particularly heroic ones) in a pseudo-religious context, as if whatever qualities that made them heroic aren't enough anymore, and the stakes need to be raised. It's similar to the way John McClane went from savvy everyman to indestructible superhero over the course of five movies. It's a byproduct of overexposure as much as anything else. But popular characters' ascendance into godlike figures is self-defeating. It removes, or at least diminishes, what is actually unique or attractive about them, and either embellishes it to the point of absurdity, or cheapens it by making it all the result of a supernatural force.

I don't have a problem with myths and prophecies and predetermined fates in fiction - just with the bogus application of them in places where they don't seem to fundamentally belong. It works in the instance of, say, Neo in The Matrix series, not only because the character was conceived in that image from the beginning, but because it's such a clear religious allegory anyway. It's a story that makes sense.

But when it's a detail added after the fact, it comes across as a cheap device to give the character meaning. But the likes of James Bond or Katniss Everdeen - or, hell, Crocodile Dundee, for that matter - don't need any grander context to continue existing, or to make their stories matter. Imagining them as the product of a prophetic fantasy only makes them boring.

The same goes for Peter Pan. And yet that's all Pan - the newest big-screen reinvention, a whole 12 years after his last big-screen reinvention - can think to do with J.M. Barrie's signature character. He's a World War II-era orphan who gets abducted and swept into Neverland, only for both his captor, Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), and Neverland's native princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) to immediately become convinced that he is the fulfillment of an old prophecy. The boy who could fly - and who happens to possess a necklace bearing a pan flute, given to him by his mother as an infant - will both kill Blackbeard and lead the native Neverlanders as their greatest warrior and hero. Or so the legend goes.

There's no doubt that Peter (Levi Miller) is the realization of this ancient promise (because why else would we be spending any time on it to begin with), and so Jason Fuchs' screenplay goes about trying to confirm that hypothesis, putting Peter through a sequence of events designed solely to prove that he's ... you see, we're going around in circles already. Now that we're on the subject of prophecies, the self-fulfilling variety comes to mind when I see this script. Its whole design is to prove its own premise. Why bother wasting our time with such a circular narrative? What a strangely limiting, reductive way to frame Peter Pan. With all the talk about what the prophecy says about him, I half-expected someone to start talking about his midi-chlorians.

I'm not familiar enough with the full Pan literature to know whether the prophecy angle was developed at any earlier stage, so maybe the blame falls with someone else. But as an addition to the character's cinematic legacy, it's an strikingly dull diversion.

The film is the big-budget tentpole debut from Joe Wright, an enormously talented director who, prior to this, had reached career peaks with Hanna and Anna Karenina. But despite some bold choices (visual and otherwise), you'll find neither the imagination nor the cohesion of his previous efforts. A telling example: there's an impromptu rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit accompanying Blackbeard's entrance, as he overlooks a flock of adolescents he's turned into slave laborers mining for fairy dust.

Is this musical flight of fancy a sign of things to come for Pan? A Moulin Rouge!-like spectacle? Well, no. There are no other such musical moments. Just the one, which in hindsight seems like an inexplicability rather than the start of a strange or bold experiment. But at least it's a sign of life - weird, idiosyncratic life - for a movie largely devoid of them, a movie that runs in circles trying to justify a superfluous conceit. If this was Wright scratching his CGI blockbuster itch, mission accomplished. Now let's hope he's gotten it out of his system.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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