From the (now) zany lens of director Joe Wright, by way of Baz Luhrmann, comes Pan, the latest in a long string of big-screen adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of Peter Pan. With the recent success of NBC’s Peter Pan Live! and Broadway’s Finding Neverland (itself an adaptation of the film by the same name), the story of the boy who refuses to grow up is certainly classic cultural comfort food. In Pan, Wright and screenwriter Jason Fuchs have abandoned aspects of the familiar narrative in favor of a prequel that is brash, often nonsensical, yet will have children entertained and dazzled but leave their adult companions scratching their heads trying to make sense of it all.
The film opens with baby Peter, newly abandoned at a Dickensian orphanage by his loving Mother, who assures him in a letter that she will return to him “in this world or another”. Her parting gift is a necklace with a panpipe charm dangling at its center. Fast forward twelve years to World War two era London and the orphanage Peter (Levi Miller) has been shabbily raised at is under constant air raids. Meanwhile he’s observed that fellow orphans have been mysteriously vanishing in the dark of night every few nights.
One night he and his close friend remain awake to uncover the enigma and are duly rewarded by being violently whisked away by a band of grotesque pirates (a la a failed production of Cirque du Soleil) on a flying pirate ship. Astonishingly they fly past planets that appear as fish bowls, into outer space, and then into a world that looks a heck of a lot like that of the dryland where Max and Furiosa escaped from in the recent Mad Max: Fury Road. There, hordes of unseen people boorishly chant the words to Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit (clearly Wright and Fuchs are fans of Moulin Rouge!) as they welcome the arrival of their leader Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, embarrassingly miscast in the role). Peter, ever the brave insurgent, defiantly rebels against Blackbeard after discovering that he has the power to fly, and soon escapes his clutches along with his newfound pal Hook (Garrett Hedlund, doing his best over-the-top Indiana Jones impression). They soon form a swashbuckling trio with Native princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, perhaps the whitest actress a casting director could find to play the role and quite possibly the frailest looking, despite the assertion that her character is meant to be a stealthy warrior). Outlandish buffoonery ensues as the narrative becomes more and more ridiculous (including fighting fairies, Blackbeard’s backstory involving a love triangle with Peter’s Mother, mystical Cara Delevingne looking mermaids who can capture memories in their water, and it gets worse from there).
Previously, the cinema of Joe Wright encompassed a flair for the theatrical but it was always harnessed into lyrical films. His adaptations (including Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina, and the undervalued The Soloist) were soulful and poetic. Yet everything in Pan (except for perhaps the intricate costumes) is inexplicably extravagant and odd. Pan is an unfortunate, rare misstep for Wright and for audience members hoping for an exciting new take on the classic fable.