Not long into director Joe Wright's origin fable Pan, the 12-year-old Peter (Levi Miller), newly captured by pirates descending from bungee cords, surveys the World War II fighter planes striking his kidnappers' airborne pirate ship and shouts, "Oh, come on!" Roughly an hour later, in the midst of another aerial attack, Captain Hook (Garrett Hedlund) - a heroic American boasting Indiana Jones' wardrobe and two functional hands - gazes at the melee involving enormous CGI birds of prey and shouts, "Oh, come on!" What does it say about a movie when even its leads can't believe in the on-screen nonsense?
Originally, I had another eight-letter word in place of "nonsense" (it starts with "b" and ends in "t"), but I'm refraining from using it in the spirit of family entertainment. A spirit, I should add, that Wright and screenwriter Jason Fuchs don't appear to give two hoots about in Pan - a garish, charmless, obnoxious adventure so stupefyingly bad that it might easily inspire cries of "Oh, come on!" among children of all ages. Given Hollywood's obsession with superheroes and rebooting and superhero rebooting, it's no shock that J.M. Barrie's boy who could fly has been given his very own origin story, complete with parental abandonment in the prelude and the promise/threat of sequels at the end. But it was still flabbergasting to see just how thoroughly Wright and company mucked this thing up. The opening scenes in Peter's orphanage - with a piggy Mother Superior waddling around and grubby youths looking ready to sing "Consider Yourself" at a moment's notice - filled me with dread. By the time Peter was whisked to a Neverland work camp straight out of Mad Max: Fury Road, with the slaveholder masses (honest to God) crooning a mash-up of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Blitzkrieg Bop," I was bemoaning dread's absence, because the truth of what was happening was far, far worse.
A pirate ship hovers in outer space, where everyone can miraculously still breathe, and where a chicken lays an egg just so the object can float toward us in 3D. (I'm guessing the format is also the only reason a mid-film mano a mano takes place on a trampoline.) Island natives, when shot, burst into puffs of colored smoke. Peter and Hook wander through jungles of plastic flora suggesting five figures spent at Pier 1 Imports. Hugh Jackman, as the grotesque and scurrilous Blackbeard, enters the picture mid-song, as though he were again hosting the Tonys. Hedlund, aiming for Harrison Ford and not even achieving Josh Holloway, speaks in a strangely flat sing-song indicating that the native Minnesotan had learned his lines phonetically. Tinkerbell and her fellow fairies are cast as laser beams. Rooney Mara, perhaps the whitest woman on Earth, is cast as Tiger Lily, and manages to lead throngs of fellow tribespeople despite a vacant stare reading "recently lobotomized," or perhaps "finger stuck in light socket." Minute by minute here, you can't believe what a staggering mess a reported $150 million can buy, especially considering it evidently can't buy a coherent story, or a cohesive tone, or halfway-decent green-screen effects, or even one mildly engaging character. A pan isn't punishment enough for Pan. This cynical, ridiculous assault deserves to walk the plank.
HE NAMED ME MALALA
It's both intriguing and telling that Davis Guggenheim's documentary on Pakistani female-education activist Malala Yousafzai - shot in the head by the Taliban at age 15, a 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recipient at 17 - is titled He Named Me Malala, and not I Am Malala, the title of the autobiography that inspired the film. The name change would seem to suggest that Guggenheim was taking a close look at Malala's relationship with her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, and whether, as some critics have maintained, this lifelong educator forced his daughter into an activist role, and consequently endangered her life, merely to promote his own agenda. Well, the film won't provide much insight into that, nor does it dive terribly deeply into how Malala's phenomenal international fame has personally affected her. What it will do is deliver a primer on a fiercely impassioned, moving figure who avows that her speeches and beliefs are truly hers, and who also Google-searches sexy celebrities and barely passes her physics tests and giggles at the Minions just like any other teen. For audiences close to Malala's age, the movie's ideal demographic, that's bound to be enough.
It's enough for some of the rest of us, too, because while I would've preferred more exploration and insight, I can't say I didn't wholly enjoy getting to know Malala Yousafzai even in this worshipful light. The film itself is beautifully assembled, with lovely hand-animated sequences providing exposition and history, and visual and aural examples of Taliban cruelty providing the crushing "why" behind Malala's human-rights efforts. Yet it's the scenes of her out of warrior-orator mode - goofing with her brothers, laughing with Jon Stewart, teaching her dad how to tweet - that are Guggenheim's most endearing and transfixing; your jaw all but drops knowing that such poise, selflessness, and purity of spirit are emanating from someone not yet 20. He Named Me Malala is the rare work that truly deserves the adjective "inspirational," even if it does make you feel awful for how you may be wasting your own life ... like, by spending two hours of it at Pan.