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Does ‘Pan’s’ Box Office Bomb Spell the End for Origin Stories?

Pan” was supposed to provide a fresh spin on the oft-told tale of the boy who could fly, but the pricey epic remained earthbound last weekend, opening to an anemic $15.3 million.

That disastrous start guarantees it will rank alongside other costly misses like “Jupiter Ascending” and “Tomorrowland” as one of the year’s biggest box office disasters. With an $150 million price tag, Warner Bros. could lose tens of millions on a film it hoped would kick off a new fantasy franchise.

When the dust settles and studio executives comb through the wreckage for clues about what doomed the adventure film, it appears that it will suffer from two fatal and seemingly contradictory flaws. “Pan” was both overly formulaic and too wild a deviation from J.M. Barrie’s beloved children’s classic to succeed.

The film’s narrative thrust — its “chosen one” story about a savior meant to liberate a people — keeps popping up in one Hollywood production after another. From “Star Wars” to “The Hunger Games,” the downtrodden are continually bumping into new emancipators, resulting in a stifling sense of deja vu.

Then there’s the origin story angle. Ever since “Batman Begins” was able to breath new life into the Dark Knight saga by taking audiences back to the time before Bruce Wayne donned the cape and cowl, studios have been loath to begin a story in medias res. But what was once a novel device has become generic. In the past decade, we’ve been treated to the early days of James Bond, Robin Hood, Maleficent, Dracula and countless masked avengers. Sometimes, as in the case of Spider-Man, we’ve been treated to two different actors reenacting a fateful spider bite. And coming films promise to fill us in on what makes everyone from Boba Fett to King Arthur tick. It may be time to catch up with a few of these figures in adulthood, or, in the case of Peter Pan, in peak Lost Boy form.

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“It’s not to say they can’t be done right, but origin stories for stories people already know well are getting tired,” said Phil Contrino, vice president and chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more movies that start with the characters already established.”

Warner Bros. declined to discuss “Pan’s” box office results on the record.

The movie business has an insatiable thirst for new intellectual property to exploit, and for a time, it appeared that injecting familiar fairy tales with the latest special effects was ripe territory to mine anew. The results have been mixed. While Disney has successfully built a business out of creating live action spin-offs and reboots of its classic animated films like “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty,” other studios have struggled to perfect the formula. Warner Bros. whiffed with “Jack the Giant Slayer,” Relativity offered up the forgettable “Mirror, Mirror,” and Universal achieved middling results with “Snow White and the Huntsman.” The last example did inspire a sequel on the strength of its overseas performance, but its $396.6 million global haul on a $170 million budget, means it likely had slender profit margins.

“Without the Disney seal of approval, audiences are a bit wary of these fairy tale adaptations,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations.

It wasn’t just that “Pan” seemed hackneyed. The film managed the rare feat of also appearing to be too radical a departure from the elements that made earlier Peter Pan stories soar. From Hugh Jackman’s scenery chewing villain to a puzzling use of contemporary pop songs from Nirvana and the Ramones, the picture wasn’t sufficiently slavish to its source material. Meanwhile Joe Wright, a visually gifted director who brought a welcome verve to literary adaptations such as “Atonement,” adapted a Rococo production design that utilized shades of fuchsia and purple that should never be seen outside of a rave. Other film adaptations of Barrie’s work, such as Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” or Disney’s animated version, tweaked the story around the edges, but remained truer to its spirit.

“It veered off the Peter Pan path quite extensively and it was just too far left of center for a generation that grew up with ‘Hook’ and sees that as the definitive account,” said Bock.

The result was something for no one. Critics loathed the picture, handing it a lowly 25% “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and families stayed away. A mere 23% of the opening weekend crowd were under voting age, roughly half the number a picture on this scale needs to succeed, while adults over the age of 25 made up 52% of ticketbuyers. Those who saw it liked it better than critics, handing it a B+ CinemaScore rating, but the competition may be too fierce for “Pan” to recover. Next weekend brings the release of “Goosebumps,” a loose adaptation of R.L. Stine’s popular children’s books, and “Hotel Transylvania 2” continues to attract big audiences into its fourth week of release.

With “Pan” poised to drown in an ocean of red ink, it will be a long time before Hollywood returns to Neverland.

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