The very idea behind Pan is ill-conceived. Who wants a prequel to Peter Pan? J.M. Barrie’s classic hero captures our imagination because he’s the Boy Who Won’t Grow Up; the idea of watching him as a regular kid, before he got that way, misses the point. And yet, here we are. Joe Wright’s film is not only a prequel, it seems to want to set up a whole Pan-verse to mine for franchise potential. (Never mind the fact that Disney, whose 1953 animated version of the film is still one of the studio’s high points, has already done that, with sequels and a whole slew of recent Tinkerbell spinoffs.) It not only gives us an elaborate origin tale — turns out young Peter’s got noble warrior lineage — but it also offers the sight of our hero and his future nemesis James (a.k.a. Captain) Hook as best buddies. Presumably we will wait with bated breath for future installments to tell us how these two became mortal enemies.
All that said, I must admit that I went into Pan with high hopes. Wright is an enormously talented filmmaker with a flair for rhythm, fluidity, and intricate design; surely the idea of his visual sensibility let loose on Neverland’s collection of childhood fantasies would yield something worth experiencing. Not only that, but Wright’s films tend to have fairy-tale-like elements — whether they be techno-thrillers like Hanna or World War I dramas like Atonement. Why not have him tackle an actual children’s tale this time?
Alas, the approach here is less “classic fable” and more “patchwork blockbuster.” Updated from Barrie’s Victorian milieu, the action starts during WWII, with scrappy Peter (Levi Miller) regularly tussling with the dictatorial nun (Kathy Burke) who runs his orphanage. Boys have been going missing at night, and Peter wants to investigate. He doesn’t have to look too long, however, for soon enough he himself is abducted — by pirates who plunge down on bungee cords and whisk the kids away, to a flying pirate ship hovering above the London skyline alongside the barrage balloons of the Blitz.
One dogfight later — yes, the pirate ship has an air battle with the RAF — the boys and their captors arrive in Neverland, where they’re immediately thrust into the service of Blackbeard the Pirate (Hugh Jackman, unrecognizable) to slave away in his quarries mining for fairy dust, or
unobtanium pixum. Here, Peter befriends worldly, wisecracking adventurer Indiana Jones James Hook (Garrett Hedlund, attempting a futile John Huston impersonation). But then Blackbeard makes Peter walk the plank, and after the boy jumps, he starts to float in the air. Word spreads that he might be Neo the Pan, a prophesied chosen one come to save Neverland. Soon, Peter and Hook have joined in with a resistance led by warrior-princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and her tribe of N’avi fierce rebels. Even the film’s more idiosyncratic, “crazy” elements feel borrowed: Blackbeard and the pirates are introduced singing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which suggests that Wright has either never seen Moulin Rouge! or really, really loves Moulin Rouge!
Could it ever have worked? The film’s failure isn’t really on the visual level, where it’s so busy and eager to please that you’re at least consistently curious as to what it’ll throw at you next. But Jason Fuchs’s script hasn’t done the work of bringing these newly revised characters to life, of finding the thing that will make this approach interesting. So Peter and Hook are friends, great; how is that better than having them be enemies? The film has no real answer, save to give us a bland, underwritten back-and-forth between the earnest, green Peter and the savvy, wise-ass Hook. Trading in a boilerplate villain for a boilerplate hero doesn’t give anything a new spin — it just draws attention to the script’s impoverished imagination.
The performances don’t help, either. At his best, Hedlund brings a comfortable, handsome ordinariness to his parts; he’s not unlike the late Paul Walker in this regard. He isn’t quite cut out for this kind of mimicry. And Rooney Mara’s usual melancholy doesn’t really work for the allegedly badass warrior Tiger Lily. Her fight scenes are choreographed and shot as if she’s a whirlwind, but the morose actress looks like she’d rather be anywhere but here. The only person who seems to be having any fun is Jackman; at least he gets to be weird. But even that’s mostly consigned to his early scenes. As the film continues, and piles predictable action scenes atop borrowed plot points, he just becomes just another baddie lost in the visual cacophony — a glorified cutaway. His flamboyant persona is no match for the drudgery of this movie, which careens helplessly between the garish and the generic.