December 22, 2015

Pan gets panned

Many people complained about the casting of Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily before Pan came out. But I didn't see anyone talking about this casting after Pan came out. Amid a welter of bad reviews, the movie quickly sank from sight.

Here are a couple of typical reviews that mention Rooney Mara's role:

'Pan' review: A movie so resoundingly godawful that you have to see it

By Josh DickeyHook and Peter manage to escape the mine pit, but are at cross purposes: Peter has got it in his head that his mother is here, while Hook just wants to get "home." And if everything you've read so far seems like a barrel of hot nonsense, well, buckle up, because you're about to meet Tiger Lily if everything you've read so far seems like a barrel of hot nonsense, well, buckle up, because you're about to meet Tiger Lily.

Rooney Mara's casting as the Native American princess got its share of blowback when it was announced. Politically it wasn't a great move, but creatively it was worse. Mara's icy detachment worked for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but here she just seems weird and slightly mean, the leader of a tribe of mostly people of color who wear ghastly bright rainbow streaks and warpaint and do a lot of coordinated dance-fighting.
Pan Review

By Sandy SchaeferSpeaking of Blackbeard: the character is essentially a tweaked version of the Captain Hook character in Pan, and Hugh Jackman very much chews the scenery while he’s playing the role–sometimes for the better, sometimes not–but ultimately, the Blackbeard character fails to add anything new to the Peter Pan mythology that the (older) Hook before him didn’t (sidenote: Blackbeard also gets an exceptionally weird introduction in the film). Similarly, the decision to make the natives of Neverland a multi-ethnic group, rather than literal Native Americans, helps to distinguish Pan from Peter Pan adaptations past–but only on a surface level. The same goes for the decision to play up the warrior aspect of Tiger Lily’s personality, yet not give Rooney Mara much else to work with.

Pan falls short at being either an imaginative origin story for Peter Pan and/or a satisfying standalone big-budget fantasy adventure, when all is said and done. Director Joe Wright’s usual inventiveness as a cinematic storyteller gets lost amidst the CGI malaise of the film, while the movie’s attempt to craft a more complicated mythology out of the relatively simple Peter Pan story might’ve worked–but would have required a far less conventional and run of the mill approach, in order to do so.

Comment:  Now that the movie's out, we can say a few things about its execution.

1) The multi-ethnic "world tribe" of brown-skinned people is nothing new. In fact, that seems to be the default in Peter Pan productions these days.

Alas, it doesn't solve the racism problem. It merely shifts the problem from Native Americans in particular to indigenous people in general.

In almost every production, the pirates are white and the natives are brown. With their ships and guns, the pirates represent civilization--of the 19th century, at least. With their wooden weapons and half-naked outfits, the natives represent savagery. This is a core message of Western Civilization and the latest Pan merely repeats it.

2) Joe Wright talked about how wonderful Rooney Mara would be as Tiger Lily. No one seems to have shared that opinion. Whether Mara was poorly (1st review) or Tiger Lily was poorly written (2nd review), no one liked the character.

I'm guessing Wright didn't think deeply about Mara's ability to play an indigenous princess. I'll bet he thought, "She's small and sprite-like just like Peter Pan. She won't overshadow him as Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Rodriguez, or Zoe Saldana would. Let's intentionally make her a lesser character so Peter shines as the 'chosen one.'"

Is that how you honor an indigenous character? No, that's how you whitewash one. It's a classic case of how "racebending" a character serves to neuter her.

For more on Peter Pan, see "From Tiger Lily to Green Inferno" and Natives Protest Tiger Lily Casting.

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