“Pan” is a messianic, charmingly eccentric, fresh take on a century-old fairy tale.
From childhood, I’ve known about Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, but not about how he came to be, who his parents were, why his mom abandoned him in an orphanage with a letter and a pan-pipe pendant on his neck.
It wasn’t clear to me how he met his adversary, Captain Hook, which “Pan” revealed was his ex-friend-accomplice, an Indiana Jones incarnate who saw a magical flying boy as his ticket back to the real world.
I didn’t even know how Peter Pan, here played by newcomer Levi Miller, defeated the child-nabbing pirate Blackbeard, portrayed with gusto by Hugh Jackman, whom I remembered best as the metal claw-wielding Wolverine in “X-Men”.
Director Joe Wright’s family adventure film “Pan” answered my questions.
It also made for a sensory overload – an exhilarating one, rest assured.
“Pan” catapulted me from a 1930s wartime London to a computer-created fantasy world.
It was Neverland in 3D, from the depths of Pixum mines, where Blackbeard’s kidnapped orphans unearthed a crystalline substance that bestows eternal youth when smoked in an opium den-style apparatus, to skies full of flying galleons battling World War II RAF spitfires, from lakes with leaping Moby Dick-sized Never-crocodiles and sultry mermaids, played by Brit supermodel Cara Delevingne, to caves of giant crystals.
“Joe Wright is an adult who’s able to tap into a child’s mind and run wild, so audiences see a Neverland like they never have before. This was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had making a movie,” attests Hugh.
“It’s a pleasure making a film for kids because you can free yourself of too much seriousness,” the director confirmed. “It’s a mad world we’ve created, full of color and texture and strange, wonderful images.”
Yet all he did was embrace author J.M. Barrie’s “sense of strangeness”. “It’s a very odd book,” he says of the classic tale which inspired the film. “It doesn’t underestimate children’s intelligence. There are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’. Everyone is flawed, even Peter. I loved the duplicity of all the characters.”
But “To play Peter in a story telling the origin of Peter Pan was amazing, really, really cool,” Levi blurted out.
“Every generation deserves its own Peter Pan story,” puts in Producer Greg Berlanti. “For me, it’s exciting to reexamine what we think we know about Peter and Hook and Tiger Lily, to twist and turn those notions around. I think Jason and Joe executed it all brilliantly.”
“I’d never read a script like Jason Fuchs and I’ve read a lot of scripts,” he went on. “This one had a heart to it that I hadn’t really found in others. And I have a son, so I really wanted to make this movie for him.”
The story is the untold tale of how an orphan named Peter became the hero known forevermore as Peter Pan.
It opens as Mary—played by Amanda Seyfried—deposits her baby on the steps of an orphanage, the Lambeth Home for Boys, with a note, a kiss, and a pan flute charm on his neck. Cut to Peter, aged 12, still dreaming of his mother’s return.
But he’s a rascal Pan, outsmarting the orphanage director, Mother Barnabas. But what he and the boys discover is that her greed doesn’t stop with the Home’s war rations. With her blessing, pirates plucked Peter and other boys, from their beds in the midst of the Blitz and whisked then away to Neverland.
However, it’s not the Neverland we’re familiar with. Under Blackbeard’s rule, Peter and his fellow orphans—along with thousands more—are thrown into a massive pit and forced to dig ceaselessly for pixum, from which pixie dust is extracted.
“Blackbeard is a troubled guy in search of eternal youth and capricious in the extreme,” the Director stressed. “One minute, he’ll be charming and funny, the next he’s throwing someone off a plank. He was once in love and lost her. Ever since has been living in a kind of self-imposed turmoil, taking it out on everybody around him, a terrifying and unpredictable force. So we had to let him have a little fun.”
Still, I have to admit that Hugh as Blackbeard almost stole the scene under the hero’s nose. Obviously, he relished playing the world’s most-feared pirate, with the grandest of entrances, strutting in the set like a diva molded in the body of Louis XIV, wearing a Marie Antoinette wig.
“I told Joe, I’ll never get to do this again, play a pirate that sees himself almost as a rock star, and actually get to sing a rock song as a pirate,” Hugh laughs. “ We— the other pirates, the kids and me — sang Nirvana. We sang some Ramones, all together. It was spectacular.”
He spoke highly of Levi as the 12-year old Peter Pan.
“He was able to stand up to me in our scenes together and I was proud of him. He’s a natural and clearly too young to know how hard it should be. You never catch him acting. He’s completely present and relaxed playing this character who is a fish out of water and very frightened. But you feel the beginning of the Peter Pan chutzpah, that mischievous, cheeky, playful Pan we know. Levi’s got that in spades.”
Indeed, “The character of Blackbeard was very frightening. But Hugh is an absolutely terrific guy and it was pretty amazing working with Wolverine,” Levi gushed. Together, they sat down with the director, discussing their screen relationship and doing a bit of fake fighting. “It was great.”
Not surprisingly, the film makes plenty of work for the stunt department. Extended battles involved tricky choreography shot over multiple days on multiple levels with the actors working on narrow beams and high rigs.
Performers like Rooney Mara, who played Tiger Lily, underwent weapons training as well.
Of course, the epic trampoline fight sequence between Garrett Hedlund, who played James Hook and the Native Village’s great warrior, Kwahu, played by South Korean actor/free-runner/gymnast/martial arts expert Taejoo Na stood out among the action sequences in the film.
It showcased not just the extensive capabilities of Garrett but also the extraordinary talents of Taejoo, who did many of his stunts without wires.
As Peter, Levi also did a good number of stunts, primarily learning to fly. “Being on the wire and going up in the air, down , forward and backwards was so much fun,” he says. “Peter does a lot of falling before he gets the hang of it.”
Beyond all these, the sets for the world of “Pan” was simply awesome.
In England, the cavernous stages of Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden and hangars at Cardington Studios provided enough space to service everything from the bleak London orphanage to Blackbeard’s vast quarry to the Neverwood and the natives’ Tree Village, to two full-size pirate ships, a mermaid lagoon, and more.
“The scale of our sets allowed Neverland to feel real and our cast to come to work every day to play pirates, warriors, adventurers—everything we do as kids in our own minds, but in a physical setting that makes it a real adventure, in 3D kaleidoscopic world of color,” the director stressed.
They started out with the noirish 1920s and shadowy 1940s London, then onto Neverland, which is at first as dreary as the drudge work the children must do, before becoming a rainbow of color.
The design for the hellish world of Blackbeard’s pixie dust mines was inspired both by Brazilian goldmines and a microscopic image of the cell structure within the human body – a vast labyrinthine structure of tunnels going in every direction, seemingly never-ending, rendered in muted browns and oranges.
A Brazilian favela, or shantytown, inspired the multi-colored Tree Village set. Resting on platforms linked by bridges and stairways, they built it from rustic timber sourced from off-cut old oak planks in lumberyards throughout the country.
It took 13 weeks to build and measured a whopping 328 feet-by-164 feet along the floor, 147 feet high, around the village’s centerpiece trampoline— where the fight of Hook and Kwahu took place.
Adjacent to the Tree Village, they built the enchanted Neverwood, a forest so big over the course of the shoot it developed its own eco system, becoming home to spiders, crickets and other insects, along with birds and even the occasional bat.
Among the sculpted fiberglass trees, some reaching up to 50 feet, the forest contained thousands of real tropical plants, between 20 and 30 different species brought in from Italy, Belgium, Holland and Malaysia.
The tropical plants, which needed temperatures of 80 degrees to thrive, were slowly dressed in as the finishing touches were made, complete with grow lights and dedicated greensmen to tend to them.
It was one of the largest sets ever built in the UK and both cast and crew regarded it as their own theme park.
The adjacent Hangar housed Blackbeard’s ships, The Queen Anne’s Revenge, The Ranger and The Jolly Roger. They took eight weeks to build and dress.
“We tried to create a completely immersive world for kids and adults,” Joe asserts. “ And I’ve never worked with a better canvas for 3D than Neverland.”
“It’s a place of wonder, a dream where whatever is required at that moment appears. If a tree is required for climbing, a tree will be there. If a lagoon is needed for swimming, it will be there. For Peter, who needs a family, it’s where he will find one. It’s as broad as the imagination that carries it. I hope ‘Pan’ gives moviegoers a visual and emotional experience that reminds them how much fun dreams can be.”