With Pan, director Joe Wright, responsible for tony literary adaptations (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina) and one rip-roaring art-house actioner (Hanna, his best), plays around with the Peter Pan mythos, imagining a prequel. He and screenwriter Jason Fuchs (Ice Age 4) present one possible origin story, in which a precocious rambunctious orphan boy gets whisked out of his miserable mortal life and sent on an introductory adventure to Neverland. The result is a silly/serious synthesis of every boy’s adventure trope from the past century plus. Narratively speaking, it ends up undoing the central stunted tragedy of the boy who never grew up by making it a hero’s journey, a chosen one fulfilling his destiny. There’s never any doubt Peter will earn his Pan, a word the native Neverlanders use to mean bravest warrior, just one of many ultimately pointless new wrinkles this movie adds to Barrie’s old story.
Nonetheless, it’s an intermittently charming oddball throwback, with swashbuckling pirates wearing painted clown faces, earnest belief in sparkling magic, and a grand swaggering parade of stereotypes through cluttered design overflowing with oddities, a half dozen styles of costume jammed together with a flourish. Its tones are a mishmash as well, half scary self-seriousness and danger (one boy plummets to his death), half winking light joke. That’s what you get when a dull formulaic plot is colored in with eccentric detail. It doesn’t work, exactly, but at its best it spoke to the parts of my brain still in communication with my 11-year-old self, content to see strange new sights navigated by a moppet who trades his dismal earthbound childhood for colorful adventure. It’s my grown-up self who grew tired of so much zippy CGI chaos and schmaltz.
We start in an ugly London orphanage like straight out of a Roald Dahl book. It’s the height of World War II, but we quickly learn the sense of danger the kids face is less from constant threat of German bombs, more from the nasty nuns who sneer and scoff, hocking up phlegm and scorning fun while promoting Dickensian chores. So when Peter (Levi Miller) is captured by pirates who pay off the nuns to allow them to kidnap new recruits, it’s scary, but also a nice change of pace for him. The scoundrels take the kids on a flying pirate ship to a Neverland conceived as a floating cosmic island beyond time and space. There the orphans are put to work in the fairy dust mines under the watch of the villainous Blackbeard, who leads them in a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sing-along and explains that shirking work equals certain death. Things are looking strange already.
Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard is certainly an original creation, in that its collection of parts has never been assembled in quite this way before. He loves Nirvana and The Ramones, huffs fairy dust to stay young, has no compunctions about murdering minor miners, and ruthlessly maintains unsafe working conditions. He wears a jet-black wig, has a sickly pallor, and twirls his mustache in gestures big and theatrical enough to be seen in the back of the balcony the next theater over. His boat’s figurehead is an elaborate carving of his own likeness. He’s a piece of work, but not much more than the rest of the cast. Everyone’s giving exactly the performance required of them, and it is a certain amount of fun to see each actor’s interpretation of “wild eyes” and “strange mannerisms,” including a shifty rogue named Hook (Garrett Hedlund with a lopsided Harrison Ford grin and speaking in a gravely John Huston voice) and a dopey stooge called Smee (Adeel Akhtar, stammering and twitching).
Those guys decide to help Peter escape the mines. Why? Because he can fly. It turns out there’s a prophecy saying a boy who can fly will show up and free everyone from Blackbeard. But Peter doesn’t believe this, so the movie turns into a long wait until he realizes the inevitable. Much contemplation of CG vistas and tromping through gaudy effects sits between. In the jungles beyond the mines, Peter and the others discover a multicultural tribe of rebels, like a collision between noble savage stereotypes and a craft store. They have a trampoline, dress in rainbow-colored duds, speak in broken English and grunts, and try to kill our leads, until their princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, strangely vacant) learns about the Chosen One and plans to throw him off a cliff to see if he can fly. The thin characters and their relationships never develop beyond the scantest of details, the better to allow the goofy visuals and plot to take over, grinding through increasingly monotonous spectacle as Blackbeard chases this lost boy.
Other jungle discoveries include tribesmen who explode in primary color puffs when shot, blindingly glittery crystal caverns, and large creepy birds who sound like clanking wind chimes as they move due to being skeletons, albeit ones with sparsely feathery wings and animated eyes spinning in empty skulls. We also meet giant crocodiles and a bunch of mermaids who all have bioluminescent electric eel tails and Cara Delevingne’s face. None of this coheres, a collection of details arranged without adding up to a convincing or complete fantasy world. It’s such a strange collection of influences and inspirations, from Barrie and Dahl, to pirate movies, adventure serials, Spielberg and Lucas, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Moulin Rouge! Such vibrant strangeness (excellent work from production designers, art directors, set dressers et al) is funneled into a generic, flat, predictable, boring package. It’s a messy, uneven picture trying so hard to be whimsical and fun, it simply feels forced. It’s big-hearted and softheaded.