The dreaded Blackbeard is the villain of “Pan,” but the real piracy comes from director Joe Wright (“Anna Karenina”) and screenwriter Jason Fuchs (“Ice Age: Continental Drift“) who plunder ideas and visuals from better filmmakers, including Terry Gilliam (the frigates reach Neverland by traveling through the void of space), Baz Luhrmann (characters en masse sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” in an otherwise non-musical film set in the 1940s) and George Lucas (one of Han Solo’s best moments is so flagrantly plagiarized here that Disney should sue).
Imitation, however, is the least of this movie’s problems. “Pan” is, for the most part, ugly to look at, shrill to listen to, and performed by actors who have been encouraged to camp it up madly in the style usually favored by aging British sitcom stars playing storybook characters in Christmas panto productions. Even worse, it’s a prequel-slash-origin-story, which means that plot-wise, the compass can point in only one direction.
Not that we needed to know the backstory of J.M. Barrie’s legendary hero Peter Pan, but “Pan” is determined to give it to us whether we wanted it or not. We begin with a distraught woman played by Amanda Seyfried, leaving her son in a basket at a London orphanage with nothing but a pendant of a pan-flute around his neck. A dozen or so years later, it’s World War II, and the Luftwaffe are raining bombs down on London.
Peter (newcomer Levi Miller, who deserves no blame for this catastrophe), now 12, sets out to investigate why other boys in the orphanage go missing in the middle of the night, and whether or not those disappearances have anything to do with the gold coins being hoarded by the cruel nun (Kathy Burke) running the place. Sure enough, a bunch of Cirque du Soleil-ish pirates (some of them even made up in clownface) bungee-jump down from their floating boats to snatch away the boys. (The idea of pirate ships battling the RAF during the Blitz is admittedly intriguing, but the sequence winds up being the first of many in “Pan” to be reduced to digital cacophony.)
Peter and his friends (none of whom will be seen or heard from again until the final minutes) are put to work in a Neverland mine, where Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) is forcing them to dig for the remaining traces of fairy dust that keeps him perpetually youthful. When made to walk the plank for a minor infraction, Peter discovers to his surprise that he can fly — which means he’s the half-fairy boy prophesied to take down Blackbeard.
So yes, for all its sound and fury, “Pan” winds up wallowing in two of the current cinema’s most tired storylines: the Chosen One/Reluctant Messiah and the Boy Who Must Learn To Believe in Himself. Ugh.
Peter escapes Blackbeard’s dungeon with the help of new best friend James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and their forced-labor supervisor Smee (Adeel Akhtar, “Four Lions”), and while Hook just wants to escape, Peter makes him help search for his mother, whom the boy believes to be living among the fairies. There’s a lot more “and then,” none of it all that interesting, although they do meet up with Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, whose racial inappropriateness for the role is exacerbated by the fact that she’s apparently the only non-Asian in her entire tribe).
What works in “Pan”? Well, Miller is bright-eyed, engaging and empathetic, eschewing kid-actor cuteness for genuine camera presence; I was reminded more than once of Christian Bale‘s youthful debut in “Empire of the Sun.” Mara, although miscast, is one of the film’s few adult performers resisting the temptation to play to the third balcony, and there are a handful of interesting visuals, from giant flying crocodiles to a school of mermaids who all happen to look like Cara Delevingne.
But oh brother, what this movie gets wrong: Jackman never finds an appropriate balance between humor and menace; his villain is just annoying and creepy, while Hedlund seems to be channeling the most overbearing moments of James Coburn and Jack Nicholson. The film’s visual palette is also grotesque, operating in two modes: Sickly and Washed-Out (during which it resembles one of those grim period pieces where all the characters have syphilis) or Blindingly Prismatic (with rainbows shooting helter-skelter all over the screen).
Wrap all that up in a John Powell score that’s trying desperately to sound like John Williams’ Greatest Hits, and the result is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. If you’re really hungering for a new spin on “Peter Pan,” check out P.J. Hogan’s great, underappreciated 2003 version with Jason Isaacs. This new film turns the famous Lost Boy into a lost cause.