Why should “Pan” be such a terribly empty experience? You might point first to the chaotic action or stock characters, but it comes down mostly to two factors.
First, it has some of the names but none of the spirit of James Barrie’s emotionally masterful novel. Second, it apes “Star Wars” – and thus Joseph Campbell’s overused template for a hero’s origins – with a desperation that brands it as third-rate material.
A teenager who never knew his parents is revealed to be the long-awaited hero who’ll lead outnumbered rebels against an evil warlord. The warlord loved the hero’s mother, so he’d rather corrupt the teen than kill him.
The hero gets an assist from a wisecracking woman-chaser in his 30s, who deserts the lad in a crisis – but, of course, returns to save the day. (Perhaps I should have said “spoiler alert,” but everyone capable of reading this article will see it coming.) This cocky rogue falls in love with the rebel princess, a beautiful and feisty maiden as brave and tough as he.
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Hey, did I mention that the warlord is a dying man who covers his head, because he can’t let people see what he really looks like? Or that the boy uses his mind to command a magical force that subdues opponents?
As Yoda might say, “The least sincere form of flattery, imitation is.”
Joe Wright, who once directed intelligent adaptations of literature (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement”) stumbles when smashing airborne ships into each other. He has a few good ideas, notably the scene where pirates drop silently on ropes to snatch children from an orphanage to their flying craft. But he has no gift at all for epic action, whether in the sky or on the ground.
Writer Simon Fuchs begins with a reasonable idea – we’re all likely to be curious about the origins of Peter Pan – and does unreasonable things ever after.
Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, ranting enjoyably) pays people who run orphanages to let him steal boys. Ships snatch them to Neverland, where he forces them to mine fairy dust that rejuvenates his decaying body and keeps him immortal.
A tribe of “savages” guards an enormous store of it somewhere in Neverland. They await the long-prophesied flying warrior who will lead them against the pirates; Peter (charismatic Levi Miller) and James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) break out of the mines together and convince princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) to let them join her band.
We’re supposed to smile every time Hook – who eventually dubs himself Captain Hook – good-naturedly sasses Peter, knowing the legend will eventually turn them into enemies. When a giant crocodile trails them down a river, we’re meant to shiver, realizing it will one day bite off Hook’s hand.
Instead, these references remind us how superior the source material is to this story. One makes us care about the sad, lonely independence of a boy who can never grow up; the other makes us care about nothing, for all the lugubrious violins of John Powell’s generic score. One has a special effect on our hearts; the other merely has special effects.
Cast: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara.
Director: Joe Wright.
Length: 111 minutes.
Rating: PG (fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material).