J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has endured as a beloved character for over a century, and for good reason: The classic tale is an ode to innocence, faith, and the magic of childhood. Sadly, Pan, the new film by Joe Wright that endeavors to provide an origin story for the titular eternal youth, comes up lacking in each of these categories. Though it’s often pretty to look at — and contains strong performances by young Levi Miller as the title character and Hugh Jackman as evil nemesis Blackbeard — there’s no real reason for it to exist, other than pursuit of the almighty dollar. Which is unfortunate, considering that it probably won’t generate many of those, either. This is the sort of movie that seems destined for the bargain bin straight out of the gate.
The opening act shows baby Peter being abandoned on the steps of a London orphanage by his mother, for reasons known only to her; then cuts to a dozen or so years later, during the Blitz. Peter is a troublemaker who knows he’s been abandoned but has never given up hope that his mother will one day return for him. (Also — in one of the movie’s first failed attempts at irony — he’s afraid of heights.) One night, he and the other boys in his dormitory are snatched out of their bunks via bungee cord, kidnapped by a band of buccaneers in flying pirate ships. Although perhaps kidnapped isn’t the proper term, since the aggressively sadistic nuns who run the place have actually hoisted a skull-and-crossbones flag to alert the pirates that the picking is ripe. Seriously. I suppose the nightly bombing raids must provide a decent cover for all these disappearances; perhaps Peter and his friends were lucky not to be offered up as bait for the Germans instead.
After an extended sequence in which the ships dodge German missiles while the audience is treated to a myriad of 3-D effects, the ships arrive at their destination: an ugly brown mine, with thousands of boys about Peter’s age all singing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to the tune of a clanging bunch of rusty pots. Yes, the steampunk aspects of Pan extend to the soundtrack, and it’s another misfire. Anachronistic tunes might work well in certain circumstances (as in 2001’s A Knight’s Tale), but here it just seems gimmicky, particularly when you consider that there’s no real reason for these enslaved lads to be singing anything, let alone that. The scene does have one thing going for it, however: The introduction of the pirate Blackbeard. Played by Jackman as a bewigged dandy who uses the scores of slaves to mine “pixum,” a rejuvenating fairy dust, the character adds a much-needed dose of relish to the film. In fact, if Blackbeard had been given more screen time, Pan might have turned into something worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the script branches off into another direction, as Peter is sentenced to walk the plank, and saves his own life by spontaneously levitating instead of falling to his death. This is of great interest to Blackbeard, who hunted the fairies into near-extinction so that he could keep all the pixum for himself (which I don’t quite understand, since if all the fairies die out there won’t be any more pixum anyway, but never mind), but an ancient prophecy foretold that one day a boy would come and lead an uprising to defeat him — a boy who could fly. All this leads to Peter being semi-abducted yet again, this time by a fellow slave named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), who sees this as an opportunity to lead a mutiny against Blackbeard himself. Again, Miller does an admirable job of making us care about Peter’s fate, even when the rest of the movie is sagging around him.
At around the halfway mark, Pan settles into your basic action-adventure, with a checklist of close calls involving the clan of Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and the hungry crocodiles that inhabit the Mermaid Lagoon. Much hand-wringing has taken place over the casting of Mara in a Native American role, but this is a fantasy world to begin with, and Mara’s work is perfectly adequate. (If there’s anything to get offended about, it’s the multicolored yarn headdress she sports in her initial scene, which looks like a reject from Bozo the Clown.) There’s a visually arresting scene at a place that Tiger Lily calls the Memory Tree, which Peter “enters” to learn crucial details about the prophecy that may or may not refer to him. Essentially, he has to overcome his fear of heights and take a literal leap of faith if he’s to find out the truth — much the way the audience for the original play was supposed to clap if they believed in Tinker Bell.
Speaking of Tink, she makes only the briefest of cameos here, in another impressively rendered set piece that takes place in the secret lair of the fairies. Since Peter is a mite young to have a love interest, the movie settles on giving us a flirtation between Tiger Lily and Hook instead — enough of a sacrilege by canonical standards, but downright painful in this case. The main problem here is Hedlund, whose Hook comes across as a hybrid between Han Solo and Sawyer from “Lost.” He can’t held entirely responsible for this, of course — the script doesn’t give him anything more to work with — but nothing about the character works. Don’t you think it’s a little too much of a coincidence for a guy to be named Hook before he loses his hand?
The ending of Pan leaves the story well-positioned for a sequel, but I doubt the hordes will be clamoring for one. Particularly since, when a character calls for the ship to set a course for “the second star to the right,” the vessel sails directly into the second star to the left instead. Where do you suppose that took them? To Foreverland rather than Neverland? What would be the difference?