Pan Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Hugh Jackman. Directed by Joe Wright. Rated PG. Opens Friday.
Pan opens with voiceover narration asserting that its new origin story for Peter Pan is critical to understanding the well-known Peter Pan tale, but nothing that follows indicates anything of the sort. Retro-fitting Peter (played by Australian newcomer Levi Miller) with a clichéd Hollywood hero’s journey doesn’t add anything to J.M. Barrie’s children’s classic; if anything, it reduces Barrie’s story to just another assembly-line blockbuster attempting to start a franchise.
In the dubious tradition of recent movies like Dracula Untold, Pan over-explains every whimsical element of the Peter Pan story, while leaving out important connections that would make its character prototypes recognizable as the familiar figures they’re meant to become. That’s especially true for James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), whom the movie reimagines as a Han Solo-style rogue who befriends Peter when the child is whisked away to Neverland from his home at an orphanage in World War II-era London.
Abducted by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, in a ridiculously over-the-top performance) and his band of pirates, Peter and his fellow orphans are forced to toil in mines to extract fairy dust (here given the scientific-sounding name “pixum”) while inexplicably chanting lyrics to anachronistic rock songs (“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Blitzkrieg Bop”). Princess Tiger Lily (played by Rooney Mara), giant crocodiles, mermaids, fairies (including Tinker Bell), Hook’s sidekick Smee and other standard elements of the Peter Pan story show up in slightly different forms, but the movie doesn’t reinterpret them in ways that are either inventive or illuminating.
Instead it saddles Peter with fulfilling a prophecy in which he’s the foretold savior (he’s literally referred to as a “chosen one”) who will defeat Blackbeard and liberate Neverland. Director Joe Wright, who enlivened classic literature with his excellent versions of Pride & Prejudice and Anna Karenina, overdoses on garish CGI in place of his usually graceful visual style, and the battle scenes are often cluttered. Worse, there’s no suspense to Peter and Hook’s various scrapes, since the stakes are frequently unclear.
Wright’s typical inventiveness shows up in just one scene, as Tiger Lily uses a magical tree trunk to spin the tale of Peter’s parentage in a sort of animated woodcut style. Otherwise the movie is a rush of special effects that signify nothing, telling a story that pretends to add to a beloved mythology while instead mostly just cheapening it.