Joe Wright’s 2015 film “Pan,” an anachronistic and colorful origin story for Peter Pan, sounded like a good idea on paper. Reimagined origin stories were very much in vogue in popular culture at the time, and the story of how an immortal elf boy came to Neverland to become rivals with a one-handed pirate is certainly ripe for investigation. Wright was also a popular commodity, having directed an Oscar nominee for best picture (“Atonement”), a strange action movie (“Hanna”), and a high-profile literary adaptation (“Anna Karenina”). Plus, Wright managed to secure an impressive cast that included Rooney Mara, Cara Delevigne, and Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard the Pirate. Levi Miller played Peter Pan and Garrett Hedlund played an ally of Pan’s in the form of the young, sexy, two-handed James Hook, a ship’s captain destined to live up to his name.
“Pan” was made for a hefty $150 million. It made a rather small $15 million on its opening weekend. Worldwide, it would only make about $128 million, which seems like a lot but doesn’t factor in advertising and distribution costs. At the last yard, “Pan” lost about $150 million all told, making it a definitive box office bomb.
When viewing “Pan” one finds a visually rich, energetic and enjoyable – if predictable – adventure film. The costumes are first class and the anachronisms give the story a surreal touch; hearing pirates sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is refreshingly peculiar. Wright also went to great lengths to remove JM Barrie’s original story of racist imagery surrounding the native characters. The character of Tiger Lily was now played by Mara, and the natives of Neverland no longer resembled stereotypes borrowed from colonialist westerns.
Peter Pan fatigue
Despite its visual opulence, high energy levels, and relatable characters, “Pan” was panned well. The film currently has an approval rating of just 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, with many critics citing the film’s reliance on CGI and all-too-familiar action tropes as a problem – for example, the climax of “Pan” takes place on flying, three-masted sailing ships chasing each other through a collapsing crystal cavern. There isn’t much humanity in a series like that.
It’s also possible audiences and critics just weren’t that interested in Peter Pan as a character. Since Barrie’s famous immortal boy is in the public domain (the play is still copyrighted, but the characters are free), Peter has appeared in loads of movies over the years. The first studio film production of “Peter Pan” was in 1924, with Betty Bronson as the title character. An animated version famously appeared in 1953, and the studio, Disney, continued to keep the film in wide circulation for decades, adapting it into rides and sequels and theme park mascots. (And a hardened version of the character, who appeared in 2022’s “Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers.”) In 1991, Steven Spielberg made the mind-boggling sequel “Hook,” and PJ Hogan made another version in 2003. The world did no pain for Peter Pan stories.
Furthermore, because of the character’s association with children’s entertainment – even the original play was notoriously loved by children – any attempts to “darker” Peter Pan or make him look cool to an adolescent audience would seem foolish. There don’t seem to be many ways to turn a non-adult kid into a hip, hardcore warrior in the mold of most teen-friendly action fantasies, and sex and violence can’t really fit into a “Peter Pan” story. intended for a large audience.
Origin Story Fatigue
Another problem with “Pan” was sticking to a popular trend. Since the success of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” a decade earlier, many filmmakers began leaning heavily on the “reimagined origin story” for other well-known characters. This is a trend that continues to this day. Prior to ‘Pan’, audiences saw an effect-forward origin from the ‘Planet of the Apes’, the ‘Alien’ origin story, ‘Prometheus’, an origin for Maleficent, several X-Men origins, a disastrous prequel trilogy for “Lord of the Rings,” an origin story for Hannibal Lecter, for Captain Kirk, for James Bond, for Mike Wazowski. To this day, we get flashbacks to the early days of the Joker or Han Solo or Robin Hood. (Remember that 2018 Robin Hood movie? Me neither!).
To quote comedian Patton Oswalt, when describing the infamous “Star Wars” prequel movies, “I don’t care where the things I love come from! I just love the things I love!” While filmmakers don’t seem to have gotten the note, sometimes audiences don’t need a backstory for the thing they already have an affection for. Where does Han Solo come from? It doesn’t matter, because that wouldn’t make his appeal in “Star Wars” any stronger.
Knowing that Peter was a half-fairy orphan who once vanquished Blackbeard the Pirate before entering an adversarial relationship with Captain Hook after years of friendship… well, it’s exhausting to think about. The appeal of Peter Pan is that he doesn’t have to grow up, he can fly and he lives his favorite adventure novel all the time. Life is great for Peter. Only when he encounters mortals who do not share his enthusiasm for Neverland does his tragedy come to light.
“Pan” is origin story hooey. And the box office numbers attest to how well the audience responded.
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