Warner’s messy ‘Pan’ continues to tank at the box office

Studio likely looking at $150 million in red ink after its disastrous opening weekend. Meant, too obviously, to start a franchise, it’s ending one instead.

Warner Brothers promotional still for "Pan."

WASHINGTON, November 24, 2015 – For anyone going to see “Pan” – Joe Wright’s reboot of Peter Pan’s origin, which effectively re-invents the character – it’s best to completely disassociate this film from the original J.M. Barrie story/play and its various iterations since. Yet that’s a difficult task, since the film’s promo efforts so obviously tie in to Peter Pan’s original, assuring an audience disconnect.

Jason Fuchs’ script for “Pan” was famously listed on the annual Black List, a roll call of the least-likely-to-be-produced scripts in Hollywood. These aren’t necessarily the “best” scripts by artistic consensus. But they are the ones that most excite those in close touch with certain executives.

It’s easy to understand why a property like “Pan” would excite a number of studio heads with regard to its potential. Yet some of the reasons why it was viewed favorably may explain why the final product is such a mess. If you don’t believe us, check out the film’s downward trajectory at the box office. According to the Hollywood Reporter:

“Unless Joe Wright‘s big-budget Pan suddenly discovers a treasure trove of pixie dust, the movie could see losses in the $130 million to $150 million range after opening to a disastrous $15.3 million in North America….”

“Pan” is a classic example of just how little faith Hollywood studios place in creative forces and audiences alike. Just as Broadway commonly recycles old classic musicals rather than taking a big gamble on something innovative and new, movie studios, too will often hedge their bets and properties that have worked before rather than taking a flyer on something that is new and possibly unique. Experience has shown the that the baseline return on such films is low.

Sadly, this makes financial sense. A film like “Pan,” tied to a popular, recognizable character, was produced for $150 million, sans promo and marketing. But to commit that kind of money, studios need some idea that they can get people into the theaters. “Pan” fit the bill. Its core audience was easy to identify, and they could market any film on Peter Pan as “’based’ on the beloved childrens’ story” and still sell it. Better yet, such a film could also be promoted as “part of the story that’s never been told before.”

Pan falls into this kind of trap before the opening credits even roll and stays there despite the director’s good intentions. But since the film’s promotional scheme was so jarringly obvious, when taken along an easily avoidable casting controversy “Pan” the finished product leaves a bad aura before it can even get off the ground. That’s unfortunate, because there’s an interesting movie at the core with an abundance of creativity.

References to Barrie’s original Peter Pan story nothing to do with this film’s story line. Places and names could easily be replaced and no one would ever be the wiser. In fact, going in with little to no knowledge of Peter Pan as a character or a story is no hindrance, save for the occasional wink-wink, nudge-nudge references to Barrie’s narrative.

Even these are gratuitous impositions on the dialogue are meant to signal to those in the know just how clever they’re being. As the younger James Hook, Garrett Hedlund is especially annoying in this regard, almost literally winking every time he drops another oh-too-clever reference.

The other major problem Pan has with being associated with Peter Pan is that there’s no thematic relevance to connect the two of them, just superficial connections. In “Pan” as in Barrie’s original, we have a boy who can fly, pirates and native tribes, a setting called Neverland, and a story that begins with children leaving England for parts unknown. and much like the original story it begins with children leaving England.

In “Pan,” however, there is no clash between childish recklessness and the tasteful repression that’s learned by adults, something that’s key to the original. Likewise, there’s also no discussion of true love and the sacrifices that go along with it. “Pan” is a very different enterprise. All those original thematic elements are missing or dispatched because they prove inconvenient to what’s developed as a fairly straight action-adventure story.

True, there are hints of high seriousness in “Pan.” Peter’s life begins badly and gets worse as time goes on. He is soon abducted by pirates in a flying ship and taken to Neverland in and around the time of World War II. Barrie’s original story was first introduced a good 35 years before World War II happened. It’s hard for a movie based on Peter Pan to be anachronistic but this segment of the film tries really hard. One of the official trailers for the film gives you a flavor of this:

Once New Peter gets to Neverland, he is introduced to a work force of orphans, children and grown-ups who have been there far too long mining a mineral called “pixie” or “fairy” dust. He also meets the young James Hook in a very Han Solo-esque role by way of the American frontier west.

Gilding the lily, Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard next makes his presence known as the workers chant Nirvana’s “Smell Like Teen Spirit.” It’s a fitfully amusing yet anachronistic and cringe-worthy moment, although Jackman does his best to make it work. But it’s yet another reason why this movie feels as if it’s meant to distract the audience from realizing that “Pan” could have been a uniquely fun action/adventure story for all they were expecting to see.

Not everything is bad in “Pan.” Despite its underdeveloped character and story arcs it is a visually stunning film, at least thanks in large part to director Joe Wright. At this point in his career, Joe Wright has become one of the best visualist directors working right now, and his work on “Pan” backs up that up. He is able to combine his training as a stage director with grand scale movie direction. He makes each setting visually arresting and unique.

The different hues and contrasts he employs as he moves from WWII-era London to Pirate’s Cove and beyond brings each exotic locale to life. Everything about Wright’s visuals is mesmerizing which is what makes “Pan’s” mess of a narrative all the more distasteful.

What’s even more infuriating, however, are this film’s obvious hooks geared toward a continuing story line and future films. For example, at no point does the movie even hint that Peter and Hook could someday become adversaries.

That the filmmakers decided to go ahead with this hacky riff on Peter Pan wasn’t a great idea. But the obvious hints that this “prequel” is the start of a new and lucrative franchise are downright insulting to viewers. They’ve just plunked down hard-earned money to attend the first installment of a continuity that’s highly unlikely ever to be completed.

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