Showdown: Cinderella vs. Pan (or, why did one succeed and the other fail?)

By November 18, 2015Main

2015 saw two live action reboots of familiar and beloved children stories — Cinderella and PanHowever, the reception, not to mention the box office, make it clear that not all magic is created equal. For reasons we'll get into, the girl with the glass slippers found her way to a bank-breaking happy ending, while the boy who could not grow up found himself with insufficient pixie dust to take flight. And no, we're not just talking simple winners and losers here. Indeed, Cinderella was about a massive a success as Pan was a failure. 

Let’s take a look at a few of the possible reasons why.

The Demand

Hot off the coin generated via Tim Burton’s Alice and 2014's Maleficent, Disney’s decision to make a live-action version of its 1950 animated film is not surprising. Like many, I found myself feeling hesitant at first. I questioned the relevance of retelling of the Cinderella story, particularly for audiences already familiar with the classic animated film. The cards seemed stacked against the filmmakers from the starts, which is why it's surprising that Kenneth Brannagh's film is so unexpectedly touching, visually lush and, at the very least, harmless. Critics and audiences seemed to think so too. Even disregarding the glowing reviews, Cinderella would have likely still found an audience if only for the 8-minute short featuring characters from Frozen — a movie that seems to be forever ingrained on everyone's mind (willfully or not). Talk about a win-win scenario.

Cinderella taps into the collective imagery that defines earlier takes on the classic story. Pan, on the other hand, is more of a  lone wolf. It sets itself out apart from earlier installments visually, resulting in something that was only recognizable by name. Add to this the fact that the film carred a 150 million dollar budget — some 50 million dollars more than Cinderella. That's a budget typically reserved for sequels to proven juggernauts; the previous two live-action takes on Pan hardly inspire that level of confidence. Still, Cinderella would have still made money with a heftier price tag, and so the failure must run deeper. There's no doubt that Pan set out to win with its top of the line creative talent, but little about the project's inception indicated the “Harry Potter” level of success that the studio desired. Is constroversy to blame? After all, Pan recieved pointed criticism for its all-white casting, and its possible that this might have had an offputting effect on a portion of the potential audience.

The Direction

Primarily known for his brushes with Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh has demonstrated that he can make a real-world narrative coexist with the more fantastical (Thor, for example, with its sleepy desert towns and fantastical norse kingdoms). In Brannagh, Cinderella found an appropriate (and dare I say, perfect) helmer; the missing ingredient in both Alice and Maleficent. Unlike post-Big Fish Burton, Branagh makes the visuals complement instead of overwhelm; the magic is always apparent but never overbearing. It's also obvious he has more in the way of actual dramatic chops than many of the VFX-focused directors working in Hollywood today (had Maleficent’s producers not seen Eragon?!). There are admittedly a few sequences in which Branagh uses five minutes to sell a beat that only needed two, but hey, this is the guy who cut his teeth on mammoth cinematic reproductions of Hamlet and Henry V.

Director Joe Wright and tentpole films go together like metal in a microwave. After all, this is the guy know mostly for Pride and Prejudice and Atonement — excellent films, but hardly CGI epics. Still, sometimes an off-beat choice can work wonders in a “James Gunn meets Guardians of the Galaxy” sort of way. Yet, as seen in Anna Karenina, larger budgets seem to result in Wright getting bogged down in the visual details, resulting in a lucious film with overly rigid drama. The naturalism of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement is sacrificed for Pan’s continuous assault of computerized images that busy the film for no real reason, and erodes viewer interest. Wright’s approach to the film mutes the emotions of the script and overcooks the narrative. The film does have its moments (where else can I see a dogfight between planes and a ship over London at night?), but they fail to come together in a cohesive whole. 

Key Differences

Branagh sought help in the writing department by enlisting Aline Brosh McKenna and Chris Weitz. The result is a new take that refreshes a well-told story by delving deeper into certain characters and plot points rather than revising the whole design. The déjà vu is strong while watching Cinderella, but interestingly after Linda Woolverton’s forced attempts to “go dark” with Alice and Maleficent, the familiarity serves as a refreshing breeze. The only false note in Cinderella is the frequent visits to saccharine territory thanks mostly to the omnipresent optimism of the story. Then again, there's an extent to which said optimism is true to both the tone and spirit of previous incarnations. It's hard to fault the film for trying to recapture our shared recollections of Cinderella, which is arguably something that Pan went out of its way not to do. In an age where every "new" take on an old classic aims to be dark and grim (justified or not), Cinderella takes a more deliberately more old-fashioned approach. And again, Branagh’s solid direction helps to offset the more cloying beats.

Pan is not all bad — in fact, it's full of interesting choices. The fatal flaw lies in the fact that it never quite settles on a reason for its own existance. Jason Fuchs’s script wants to tell an origin story about Peter Pan, but a much better film starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet already accomplished that in an unexpected and delightful way. Finding Neverland is admittedly more about the author than the lore, but the dreamy and imaginative film still manages to scratch that "origin story" itch. In Pan, Fuchs gets caught up in constant references and lore related setups without adding much to the conversation. Easter eggs can be a lot of fun, but simply including rather than subverting or adding to them them (like Casino Royale) makes familiar action sequences like the ticking crocodile and the mermaids feel extraneous and tired.

Final Thoughts

The scene is set: one film makes $106 million more than its budget domestically, the other stands poised for a possible $100+ million loss. In short, Cinderella casts aside any initial doubts by sticking to a vision that honors the spirit of the original story. In comparison, Pan strays from the beaten path but fails to justify itself in the process, recalling Ridley Scott's similarly questionable take on the Robin Hood mythos.

Am I right? Have I missed the single most important factor driving Cinderella’s success and Pan’s subsequent failure? Sound off below!