‘Pan’ and the Amazing Technicolor Natives

First things first: Pan — opening in U.S. theaters this weekend — is a colorful, action-packed PG-13 reimagining  of the origins of Peter Pan and his relationships with and to Captain Hook, Tiger Lily, and Neverland as we know them through J.M. Barrie’s play and novel and their myriad subsequent Broadway, Disney, and Hollywood (re)interpretations.

My daughters, ages 11 and 6, enjoyed the film, and the 6-year-old, who often asks to leave the theater during intense or “scary” action sequences, made it through with only a bit of parental ear-covering during loud bits. The world-building and -design and the effects were beautiful and well-done, with visual call-backs to many fantasy, science fiction, and action films that parents will recognize fondly (the Mad Max films and Avatar being just an example) and original effects like giant bubbles of water containing aquatic life floating in the sky that I will remember for a while. But it’s the twists, and the questions and consequences they bring up, that I want to talk about now. So from here on in, SPOILERS AHEAD.

Ostensibly a prequel to a story we all know, Pan treads some well-worn Campbellian territory — the coming of age of a Chosen One destined to rise up from obscure or oppressive circumstances to save his people; an orphan of hidden, mysterious, and mystical (and mixed) parentage who discovers both his true heritage and his inherited, special powers; the unlikely friends who, in later tales, become bitter enemies — while making some specific choices about plot twists and reinterpretations of the source material that complicate both the story as we know it and how we (or rather, here, I) take the film as a finished product.

Barrie’s original tale of Peter and Wendy takes place at the beginning of the 20th century, placing the origins of the boy who does not age even further back. This film transposes Peter’s beginnings to World War II London, in an orphanage filled with, shall we say, lost boys displaced by war and the Blitz.

This chronological grounding, however, is immediately called into question upon Peter’s arrival in Neverland amongst orphans sold into slavery to anachronistic pirates. As Hugh Jackman’s scenery-devouring Blackbeard conveys to the soundtrack of a literally canyon-filling boys’ choir rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Neverland is a wibbly-wobbly time-wimey transdimensional nexus, drawing its castaways from across time and (terrestrial) space.

Thus, we have pirates who fully look the 18th century part, including British actor Nonso Anozie’s African-accented Bishop as Blackbeard’s number two, alongside WWII London orphans, and South Asian British actor Adeel Akhtar’s Mr. Smee in a WWII-era leather aviator’s helmet, Coke-bottle glasses, a name tag whose legend recalls some familiar names from a different English fantasy novel, and a working-class English accent.

And then there’s Garrett Hedlund’s decidedly different spin on the future Captain James Hook: with his hat, clothes, diction, and accent, this Hook is definitely American, and probably supposed to be an Old West cowboy type. His almost comically square-jawed way of talking, peppered with sentences ending in “kid,” bring Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and Han Solo immediately to mind, and this can’t be an accident.

The film’s big bad is the legendary pirate Blackbeard, played by Hugh Jackman as a flamboyant megalomaniac. Many of the traits we associate with the traditional portrayal of Hook are transposed onto Blackbeard, like his wont to dress and decorate like pirate aristocracy and his emphasis on etiquette and manners (he gets the “good form” line here — he also gets “think a happy thought”).

Instead of one Jolly Roger, he’s got an entire fleet of flying pirate ships and all sorts of steampunky goodness besides. Oh, and his entire conquest of Neverland, its Fairy Kingdom, and its native Tribe (more on them in a bit) is based on his immortality jones. Yes, after that scene, you will say to yourself, wait, did Blackbeard just freebase pixie dust? Yes, yes he did.

Pixie dust, given the pseudoscientific name pixin in its crystalline (read: rock) form, doesn’t just make good little boys and girls fly. It’s the source of Blackbeard’s immortality (thought apparently it doesn’t keep one’s hair growing for centuries), and is the reason he hunted the fairies to supposed extinction and why he buys orphans to staff his mining operation. Now here’s where things get interesting. The fairies allied themselves with the people variously called “the natives” or “the tribe” by the pirates to fight Blackbeard, and then basically magically faked their entire kingdom’s death to go into hiding and await the return of the Pan, the Chosen One who will save them all.

And why is the Chosen One the Chosen One, and why is he Peter? Because he’s the magic hybrid son of Blackbeard’s presumably human consort and the prince of the Fairy Kingdom, of course. And since the fairies are still represented as tiny energetic points of light, how does that happen? Because he took human form. Duh.

Now here’s where the choices and reinterpretations made by director Joe Wright start causing me problems. When the internet exploded in disapproval (or at least, the parts of the internet I spend time on) at his casting of very white Rooney Mara as traditionally Native American Princess Tiger Lily, he espoused a sort of “I know it sounds bad, but no really, it’s fine, just wait and see” defense. And so when we meet the natives, we’re bombarded by color (to a decidedly Afro-Brazilian-ish soundtrack). The color, textural, and pattern palettes of the design of their village, its structures and decorations, and the inhabitants’ garments seem to be taken from parts of Southeast Asia, indigenous Latin America, and Africa, all mashed together.

That goes for the people themselves, as well. Their current “Pan” — or strongest warrior, called upon to fight Hook — is played by South Korean actor Tae-joo Na, and the Chief — Tiger Lily’s presumed father — is played by Australian aboriginal actor Jack Charles. A passing scan of faces shows a population that is mostly of color, except, it seems, for the glaring exception of the aforementioned warrior princess.

In stories about the backlash to Mara’s casting, Wright has been quoted as saying, “I liked the idea they were indigenous people who were fighting against the colonialist rule of Blackbeard.” Mara, explaining that she too felt a little uncomfortable at the prospect of playing a traditionally Native American character, has said that Wright “showed me all of these images that he had of all of these different cultures around the world, and he explained to me what his vision was for the native village. It made sense to me. They are natives of Neverland, a completely made-up place. Then it made sense to me.”

And while it might sound good, and look good in all the glorious colors of some pan-indigenous textile work, and even feel good for a minute, all the timey-wimey-ness of Wright’s choices collide with these justifications to make me ask some questions. Like, for example, if Blackbeard’s pirates and conscripts are from various places and times on Earth, when and where are the natives from? Are they truly indigenous to Neverland, or are they from somewhere else? And what about the fairies? Are they Neverland’s indigenous people? Are they both? Are the natives human?

Because there’s that little detail that left my jaw on the floor during the pirates-vs.-the-tribe battle scene: when the natives are hit and die, they don’t bleed, or fall down bodily. Nope, they explode in a shower of the same colors that festoon their village, like it was Holi or something (or for the Columbusing masses, like it was the finish line at a color run).

And the specifics of interspecies sex aside, if the fairy prince had to take human form before being able to consummate with Mary, why didn’t he rely on his long experience with the humanoid natives, who don’t look like Rooney Mara except for Rooney Mara, in creating his persona, which of course then resulted in offspring looking like Levi Miller? All of which is to say, if Wright was really serious about creating this otherworldly world with its pan-indigeneity pitted against the imperialism of the pirates, and if he was really interested in underscoring this vision through casting — like making Mr. Smee South Asian or the tribal chief an Aboriginal Australian — then why couldn’t Peter Pan, the savior, look more like the natives? And for that matter, finally, why couldn’t Tiger Lily look more like the natives?

Which is to say, really, at the end of it all, wouldn’t have Wright made his point a whole lot stronger if he’d cast a woman of color as Tiger Lily, or racebent Peter Pan like he did Smee, rather than the opposite, as he maintains? Did he not consider what it meant, visually and contextually, to again present a white face as the leader and/or savior of a diverse group of people of color, and what it could have meant to make a different choice?

So yes, it’s a fun, old-fashioned family action adventure, one that calls back to a time when there were more of them around to share with family members old and young. And if we watch it again, it’s one that will require me to ask my kids the kinds of questions they don’t want to have to think about when watching a family movie. But that’s okay, because that’s parenting.