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Warner Bros. // PG // December 22, 2015
List Price: $35.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 23, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Promises of whimsy and nods to the work of J.M. Barrie and to Disney's animated film fly into view with Pan, the prequel to the Peter Pan universe directed by Hanna and Atonement director Joe Wright. With his experience in realizing smart and visually-alluring stories from a child's perspective, the director seems like an ambitious choice in tacking this live-action extension of a beloved setting, also affording him the chance to bring grander Hollywood-scale action to life through his distinctive dramatic lens. Pan doesn't lack for whimsy, soaring through the skies in digitally-rendered ships as it covers how the titular hero made his way to Neverland, bolstered by fairies and tribal rituals and a particularly sassy villain. What's missing is the right kind of energy required for its intended family-friendly attitude and joyous magical pursuits, resulting in its eccentric performances not ringing as true as they should and its flights of the imagination appearing dreary and unimaginative enough to meddle with the film's tempo.

Our story begins by showing how young Peter ended up at a London orphanage, a conventional sight involving his mother (Amanda Seyfried) leaving a note for her son and a token of her affection: a metallic pendant in the shape of a pan flute. Cut to twelve years later, where the boy (Levi Miller) has suffered under the dictatorship of a bunch of angry nuns and lived on minimal rations, knowing next to nothing about his lineage. Abruptly, in the middle of the night, Peter gets whisked away by orphan-thieving pirates aboard a flying ship, with one destination in mind: Neverland. There, at the mercy of the dreaded Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), Pan's forced into servitude alongside many other young and old men in search of fairy dust buried within the rocks. Peter's defiance, limited knowledge of his mother, and his budding relationship with co-"worker" Hook (Garrett Hedlund) -- a Han Solo-esque rogue -- lead him on a journey that takes him through the mines, the forests, and the clouds of Neverland in search of who he's really meant to be.

The script from Ice Age: Continental Drift writer Jason Fuchs bequeaths Peter Pan with a rather commonplace, Oliver Twist-inspired origin, to which director Wright drapes in droopy grays and tans while spinning a yarn about the character's gloomy surroundings within war-torn England. There's a staleness about the sequences, from rebelling over food to the bonding between orphan boys ready to fly to coup, that begins Pan on a lackluster note that it never really shakes off, even amidst gunfights between flying pirate ships and warplanes leading into the world of Neverland. Odd use of exaggerated comedy -- somewhat slapstick at many points -- and a cluster of excessively histrionic performances that could only work in a cartoonish family film stick out like sore thumbs within the destitute surroundings. For a children's film with a lot going on in its beginning, including bomb raids and the aforementioned dog fights between outlandish opponents, it's a surprisingly drab start to the adventure.

Wright drastically perks up the color and music in Pan once the commotion arrives to Neverland, but his choice of tunes -- there's an odd riff on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to get things started -- and his inclination towards a theatrical set-design presence occasionally reminiscent of Anna Karenina conjures a peculiar, surreal cheerlessness. The script swoops in with ties to the known Peter Pan universe, commanded by the not-quite-Captain Hook making his presence known through a charismatic broad performance from Garrett Hedlund, but their integration into the narrative comes across as on-the-nose, necessary filling of gaps instead of adorning the film with familiar charm. While incorporating the mystical realm's ties to fairies and a tribal atmosphere, the film struggles to make connections to other versions of the story that feel organic within vibrant but stagy locations, keeping one from getting wrapped up in the lavishness of it all. Miners squabble, natives gallivant in showy rituals, and Hugh Jackman generates a heavy-handed villain with devious motivations, yet it all moves along without the magic touch that'd give it a life of its own.

Part of that boils down to Peter's title as a "chosen one" and how it propels his journey toward becoming the flying boy of legend, which feels like a rehash of many other family-centric fantasies in a story that's already on a destined path. Pan comes across as if it's going through the motions, from the symbiotic partnership between Peter and Hook -- one coming of age and dealing with prophecy; the other struggling with overly wayward tendencies -- to their budding relationship with the oddly-chosen Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily, whose minimalistic poise gives the empowered native girl an uncomfortably rigid presence. The purposes behind their growth as characters are weighed down by persistent, albeit good-intended reminders of what's to eventually come of them, all while struggling underneath this mundane scripting tailored for younger audiences and the eccentric performances that accompany it. The story progresses as if born of obligation instead of a desire to tell a unique spin on the mythology.

The brassy final act in Pan navigates through bountiful digital effects throughout the fantastical setting, chock full of vibrant makeup, ornate costuming, and admirably vigorous fight choreography befitting a blockbuster. It's full of enough activity to keep the senses engaged as the mysteries of Neverland materialize -- connecting Peter's lineage to the realm's deep fairy history -- with director Wright breaking from the smaller-scale bouts of action from his previous works to orchestrate proficient epic-scaled gravitas surrounded by intricate computer wizardry. In the process, however, his voice as a director fades within these necessary demands of this boisterous conclusion and the destination that it's supposed to arrive at, resulting in a fairytale that lulls one into indifference instead of rousing them into believing in the sights and sounds surrounding the young hero.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Pan soars onto Blu-ray in a fine 2.39:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment, facing a number of challenges on its journey: the complex contrast of muted grays and tans in London; colorful makeup and intricate magical effects in Neverland; and a consistent rush of movement throughout both locations. The scenes throughout WWII-entrenched England offer tricky but ultimately satisfying black levels, allowing craftily warm skin tones to emerge from the austere surroundings. The pinkish-red mountainous walls and the verdant tribal locations -- along with their ritualistic garb -- lure out attractive shades of green, red, and blue that always appear capable saturated. And the caliber of detail at play here is often rather tremendous, from the intricacy of fairies flying around to the splashes of water, though the general smoothness of the image and moments of iffy computer-generated effects suffer from the clarity. Motion is smooth, distortion is minimal, and the tight close-ups are exceedingly pleasing to the eye.

The Dolby Atmos track for Pan scales down to a phenomenal 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, with incredible spatial awareness, razor-sharp effects, and robust musical presence. Surround atmosphere remains crucial throughout the film -- from aerial onslaughts in London to orphanage shenanigans and rhythmic dances among tribal people -- offering a wide arrangement of subtle and strong aural elements that immaculately fill out the surround stage, with rear-channel activity remaining a delight. Bass activity stays under control while offering clear, nuanced responses to vigorous gunfire, the commotion of a ship's movement, and other heavier elements throughout. Dialogue remains articulate, free of distortion, and well-balanced with the rest of the assertive effects, while the soundtrack replicates percussion and vocal clarity incredibly well. My only reservation comes in the reservation of the track during certain scenes where surround activity should be more prevalent. Pan sounds petty fantastic. English, French, and Spanish subtitles, as are English and French 5.1 options.

Special Features:

Commentary with Joe Wright:
Director Wright's commentary style hasn't changed much since his previous efforts, really. His conversation rhythm tends to be low-key and casual, insightful in bursts and occasionally honest about misgivings, yet again sports numerous gaps of silence. He touches on how he combines digital and practical effects and how he almost made the intro black and white, his reasoning for using the Nirvana song when he does and how he knows it doesn't work for some people, conceptualizing the distinctive beasts in the film, and his proclivity towards elements that are grounded in reality. Wright also elaborates on the strength of Tiger Lily as a character and the intentions he had towards the native tribe, answering a few questions some might have about how they're represented in the film.

Filling out the rest of the special features is a series of four short featurettes, filled with interviews and behind-the-scenes glimpses while being narrated by both a vibrant female voice and a gruff lower masculine one. Never Grow Up: The Legend of Pan (10:50, 16x9 HD) covers the history of the "timeless" character from the mind of J.M. Barrie and how it's been consistently expanded upon and reimagined over the years. The filmmakers, actors, even a Peter Pan historian discuss what comes together to make the realm of Neverland and how it connects to the original text, from the plays on Hook's origin to the diversity of the indigenous tribe, as well as the practical construction involved. It's a lot of material to cover in a short period of time, but the brevity makes it enjoyable. The Boy Who Would Be Pan (6:07, 16x9 HD) touches on the demands of the character and how Levi Miller fit what they were after, while The Scoundrels of Neverland (5:49, 16x9 HD) touches on Hugh Jackman's Blackbeard coming close to being "rock star material" and the physical process of realizing his minions. Wrapping things up is the production design featurette Wondrous Realms (5:01, 16x9 HD), which, considering the narration, seems like it might've been designed with an interactive exploration of locations instead of thrown together into a single extra.

The Blu-ray also comes with a standard-definition DVD Copy and a Digital Copy slip on the other side of the enclosed advertisement.

Final Thoughts:

Reworking beloved stories into fresh, different live-action experiences for new audiences has become increasingly popular over the past couple of years, something that Pan hopes to capitalize upon through the capable directorial guidance of Joe Wright. Instead of enchanting, however, this rambunctious back-story of Peter Pan ends up lacking energy and being awkwardly referential toward the story to come, with an attitude that lingers in the odd gap between that of a children's film and of a sprawling fantasy epic. Plenty of practical and digital effects occupy the eye's attention and there's certainly a world being crafted here, but it can't quite come together with the animated performances or the overly familiar plot design of Peter's predestined purpose. WB's Blu-ray looks and sounds terrific, though, and a collection of nice features certainly will make a Rental very worthwhile.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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