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Pan: the rehabilitation of evil

NEWS | Mark Hadley

Wednesday 23 September 2015

This September the children’s movie Pan will re-introduce your family to a familiar set of characters. J.M. Barrie’s modern fairy tale orphan-hero Peter Pan will, like many characters before him, receive a Hollywood backstory, along with many more inhabitants of Neverland. We’ll watch with bated breath as Peter crouches in the cloud of dust created by his escape attempt from the mine to which the fearsome pirate Blackbeard has confined him. He’ll turn to his companion who helped him gain his freedom and say,

Peter: If I’m going to trust you, I need to know your name!

James: It’s Hook! The name’s James Hook!

And, reassured, Peter soon-to-be-Pan will set off on their adventure together. But the mums and dads will have caught their breath. Clearly we know something our hero doesn’t – the man to whom Peter has tied his fate will one day become his evil adversary. Or will he?

Pan is the latest children’s film to turn our notions of villainy upside down. We discover forces in Hook’s past that at least explain if not excuse the attitude he will one day take to Peter. And the children who make up Pan’s primary audience will walk out with the barely conscious conviction that evil is not as black and white as it seems. But Pan won’t be the first film to push this conclusion.

Four months earlier the release of Minions unveiled the back-story of the yellow pill-shaped munchkins we first met in Despicable Me. Though they’ve been the servants of villainous masters for longer than human beings have existed, it turns out they’re not so much evil as desperate for a purpose. Likewise the bulbous headed blue villain from Megamind embraces evil because he’s rejected at school.

It’s not as though Hollywood is seeking to provide kids with an excuse to be bad. Most of its villains opt to become good guys in the end. However through a series of sequels, prequels and reboots, scriptwriters are creating a fairly consistent fantasy world where evil is an understandable consequence of unwarranted abuse and mistaken choices. In short, a land where no one is to blame.

Take Maleficent for example. Angelina Jolie gave us a whole new perspective on the evil witch who poisoned Sleeping Beauty with her apple. Betrayed in love and crippled by a selfish man, the queen’s vindictiveness comes to look more like the understandable reaction of a wounded soul.

In short, Hollywood is in the habit of using context to make bad look good, or at least reasonable. However, the Bible pictures this sort of thinking as one of the lowest levels a society can sink to:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter … (Isa 5:20)

Sodom and Gomorrah revelled in their sexual immorality; ancient Israel celebrated its spiritual prostitution. And in life or at the movies, God’s word warns that the upending of his standards indicates a society ripe for judgment:

… for they have rejected the law of the Lord Almighty and spurned the word of the Holy One of Israel. (Isa 5:24b)

It’s not that the average person denies the existence of sin, but these excuses for evil are another way of putting us beyond the reach of judgment. If sin is the result of a poor background then it’s something we can excuse, even justify – much like Megamind, Maleficent and Captain Hook. Yet, though understanding the context for evil might explain its origin, that’s a world away from personal exoneration. We need to remind ourselves and our children that ridding ourselves of sin begins with seeing it for what it is, and ends with asking God to set us free.

Pan is in Australian cinemas from 24 September 2015.

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