Warner Brothers presents a film directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Jason Fuchs; based upon characters created by J.M. Barrie. Produced by Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Paul Webster. Music by John Powell. Photographed by John Mathieson, Seamus McGarvey. Edited by William Hoy, Paul Tothill. Production designed by Aline Bonetto. Costumes designed by Jacqueline Durann. Starring Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara.
Pan comes billed as “the untold origin of Peter Pan.” Well, they got the untold part right. I somehow doubt that Scottish writer J.M. Barrie envisioned the boy who never grew up as an orphan rescued from the 1940 London blitz, given the simple fact that Barrie died three years before it happened. I also don’t believe he imagined Peter’s first days in the enchanted world of Neverland involved working in a mine alongside thousands of enslaved children, under the iron fist of the time-traveling, pixie-dust-huffing, contemporary-pop-song-loving villainous pirate Blackbeard. Nor do I believe that upon arrival, Peter Pan befriended a young, pre-amputation scalawag adventurer named James Hook, or that together with a Caucasian version of Native American princess Tiger Lily, they fulfilled an ancient prophecy about a Chosen One. I can believe in fairies, but I do not believe in this.
What I do believe is that, in collaboration with his production team and actors, and with the freedom of $150 million dollars, director Joe Wright has made a grave error with Pan, an exhausting monstrosity so comprehensively miscalculated that not a thing about it works. Not the garish production design that excises all magic. Not the endless and oppressive special effects completely devoid of wit or wonder. Not the screeching, shrill pantomime performances, nor the parade of storytelling cliches, or the unpleasant tone or the flat direction or the just plain bizarre stylistic choices. Wright is a good filmmaker (Atonement, Hanna), which makes sense. You have to be talented to make something this stubbornly wrong-headed.
It’s a movie far removed from the legend of Peter Pan, because J.M. Barrie created this story as more of a cautionary fable than a heroic epic. Pan’s existence, though seductive to frustrated Victorian preteens, is actually a sad and lonely one, and his adventures in Neverland are, in the end, poignant, dreamlike emblems of the important things we sacrifice if we surrender to arrested development. P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan understood that, but few other adaptations have. This one imagines Peter’s origin as an empty, run-of-the-mill fantasy swashbuckler, replete with wholesale pilfering of plot points from successful blockbusters (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Avatar and even Mad Max are shamelessly thieved). You have to wonder what the point was, if this is all they were going to do with it.
In Pan, Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) is an orphan under the care of corrupt nuns who hand off their charges to Cirque de Soleil-style bungee-jumping pirates so they can be whisked away to Neverland on their flying pirate ship (after dogfighting, pointlessly, with the RAF). There, Peter is enslaved by Blackbeard, played by Hugh Jackman in a grating and aggressively bipolar performance. Peter’s salvation comes from his new friend Hook, a misdirected Garrett Hedlund. Hedlund is a fine actor, but so mannered and over the top here, as if he’s channeling Daniel Day -Lewis playing Han Solo for Saturday Night Live. With Peter revealed to be a (sigh) Chosen One, they search for his mother with the assistance of Indian princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, looking as uncomfortable as we are to see her in this part). After much running around and sword fighting and obnoxious nods to Peter Pan lore (sample dialogue: “The boy was lost?” “Yes, he’s a lost boy.”) the movie ends with a rote promise of sequels, because of course.
Then there’s the really weird stuff, like the way Hook’s followers rally themselves by singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and later, the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,”) as if Baz Luhrman stepped in as guest director. Or the way Tiger Lily’s tribe members, when killed, poof into colored smoke. Or the sloppy green screen photography that makes every CGI backdrop look like one. At one point, Peter and Hook have a conversation on the deck of a pirate ship barreling through the sky, as if they could even hear themselves. Wright shows discomfort here with making a crowd-pleaser, probably because given the aggressively unpleasant tone, it’s very tough to determine what audience Pan is actually for, aside from collectors of expensive movie disasters.