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Review: I Loved Pan. But It’s Got BIG Problems.

3 out of 5 stars.


Sometimes you watch a movie that, logically, you know can’t really be considered “good,” and yet, you just can’t help liking it. Usually, these movies have a sense of nostalgia around them—those nostalgia glasses sure have a strong prescription don’t they?

I know I’ll get a lot of hate for saying this, but I find The Goonies to be a bad movie. But I say that as someone who didn’t watch it until she was 26. I also won’t even bother reviewing the new Star Wars, because I literally JUST watched the original trilogy in entirety THIS YEAR (blame my father for that cultural oversight) and clearly wasn’t as excited to watch as my friends who knew them from childhood. But, I also know some movies (that Mighty Ducks trilogy and all four Parent Trap movies come to mind) are just memories that wouldn’t hold up if viewed for the first time today, my personal connection is just too strong to disregard them.

So you might be wondering, “What exactly is this Peter Pan prequel with a weird performance by Hugh Jackman and a white actress playing Tiger Lily?” Jackman plays Blackbeard, the pirate who has been kidnapping people to work his fairy diamond mines (even writing that, it’s hard to be totally certain I got that plot point correct). Levi Miller plays Peter Pan, an orphan of Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, who is taken from his orphanage, run by a cruel nun that would have made Roald Dahl proud (she’s a real Trunchbull type). Captured, Peter meets Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a cowboy type who wants to escape the mine and masterminds a plot to steel a ship with Peter, accidentally taking along Smee (Adeel Akhtar). … And then they meet up with Neverland’s “native people,” including Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).

Now, let’s just address the issue with Tiger Lily and the whitewashing casting, which is, at best, problematic. Basically, the entire Tiger Lily character from the books has always been a problem, as well as the “Indians.” The character and connection to a stereotypical and offensive depiction of Native Americans is a problem that comes right from the books, which were influenced from dime store novel depictions of “cowboys and Indians.” Arguably, Disney made this even worse with their cartoon and that song. You know the one.

The character has rarely been played by a Native American actor, and in recent films (like Hook) she’s just left out entirely. From the start, the character and her “tribe” were created under racist circumstances, so any modern day retelling has to attempt to overcome that problem, try to ignore it, or cut it out entirely.

So the team behind Pan is clearly attempting to side-step that issue by not making the character of Tiger Lily part of a tribe based on Native Americans, and instead create a people with no ethnic specificity; they include white actors so as not to relegate ethnic characters to “other” in the film, for better or worse.

But even if you want the characters to be of a non-specific ethnicity and/or color, that doesn’t mean leader Tiger Lily had to default to white. Even if Wright didn’t want to cast a Native American actress because of fear that of connecting a fictional tribe to an actual Native American Tribe, there is no reason not to cast a woman of color in the role. And considering the film is actually pretty diverse overall, the casting of all white actors in the leads is a telling decision. Hook isn’t a pirate with any regional specificity…he’s stereotype of an American cowboy type who literally becomes the captain of a ship—A captain who talks suspiciously like Jack Nicholson.

So you might be thinking, “But you liked this movie?” Before I get completely sentimental about why I liked it, let me say a few things in its defense: The score is great, although the contemporary popular music is stupid, but the score is just about perfect. The visuals are nothing short of stunning, like a storybook (especially in 3D). The worlds created are pretty impressive, and the fairy world is the definition of magical. While the casting is extremely concerning, Mara and Hedlund are really good in their roles, and Jackman is hilariously bizarre (something tells he he’s watched The Mask a few times).

But the thing I appreciate most about this movie is probably the fact that this children’s movie would be a pretty intense watch for little kids. I really love “scary” children’s movies, and I always have. Willy Wonka, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Treasure Island, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Return to Oz, that Alice in Wonderland with the jabberwocky—terrifying movies that help kids develop coping skills to deal with scares, because they’re experiencing them in a safe environment. These movies stuck with me, and if I had watched Pan as a little kid, I probably would have loved it for the same reason. There is some intense stuff in this movie, and Jackman clearly wants to put fear into little children’s hearts (for a little while, anyway).

But really, I love it for another reason, too. I literally know what is meant by guilty pleasure with this movie, because even acknowledging the logic, narrative, and character problems (and its disappointing “to be continued” ending), I was totally into it and cried pretty hard a couple of times. Why? Well, for the same reason I cried during Hugo: It totally reminded me of watching movies with my grandpa as a child, and he loved movies more than anyone I knew. This isn’t a movie I’m certain little kids will love, but it is a movie little kids will like watching with their grandparents (or even better, great grandparents). It’s a weird mash-up of Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn pirate movies, B cowboy movies, and ’80s fantasy films (oh, and that crocodile is definitely an homage to monster movies).

It makes as much sense now as it did when my grandfather showed me those movies as a kid, and I was asking, “What’s going on?” Part of the reason we love books and movies and music is the shared experience of how we were exposed to them; I have no idea if Velveteen Rabbit is good or if I just read it too often with my parents as a kid, but I know that I had been primed from childhood to love Pan. I didn’t stand a chance.

I can’t RECOMMEND this movie without reservation, because I know it’s incredibly problematic. If you’re planning on seeing it, you should know that; whitewashing a character is never okay. But when viewing the movie with critical distance, letting my heart ignore what my head is saying, this is one of my favorite movies of this year, and I’ll still take my cousins to see it and tell them about all the movies it’s inspired by that I watched with our grandfather. And you’ll probably see me in the theater with Cherry Coke and Milk Duds, wearing 3D glasses, totally loving it.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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