Of all the recent big-budget studio films to re-imagine beloved children’s tales as garish, CGI-choked sensory overloads stripped of all whimsy or childlike wonder, Joe Wright’s “Pan” is certainly the most technically sophisticated. The director displays his typical formal virtuosity and keen eye for young talent here (Aussie newcomer Levi Miller is assured in the title role), but it’s not enough to enliven the depressing dourness of the film’s worldview. Positioned as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan stories, “Pan” swaps puckish mischief and innocence for doses of Steampunk design, anachronistic music, a stock “chosen one” narrative and themes of child labor, warfare and unsustainable mineral mining. Worldwide box office will likely be strong, especially overseas, but the bubble for these joyless fairy-tale revisions cannot pop quickly enough.
There is perhaps no clearer illustration of “Pan’s” guiding principles than its treatment of pixie dust. In Walt Disney’s 1953 “Peter Pan,” the story’s best-known incarnation, pixie dust is a glowing substance that allows lucky children to fly high above the clouds. In “Pan,” pixie dust is the street name for Pixum, a rare, crystalline substance mined by slave labor from deep in the earth that, when smoked on an elaborate opium den-style apparatus, restores youthfulness to the user. (The film neglects to tell us its radioactive half-life or the side effects of recreational use, but perhaps those scenes are being saved for the director’s cut.)
Before we even get to the aforementioned scenes of enforced manual labor in Neverland, however, we have a cheerful prologue set in a Dickensian London orphanage during the worst of the Nazi bombing raids. Twelve-year-old Peter (Miller, perhaps Wright’s best child-actor discovery since Saoirse Ronan) has been here since infancy, when he was left by his apparently parkour-trained mother (Amanda Seyfried) along with a letter and a pan-pipes medallion. Noticing strange disappearances around the orphanage, Peter and buddy Nibs (Lewis MacDougal) break into the office of the gruesome head nun (Kathy Burke), discovering a cache of silver coins and hoarded rations. That night, she raises a black flag above the facility, and bungee-jumping pirates abscond with a host of children, Peter included.
Greeted by a pirate chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (they also sing the Ramones’ “Blitzkreig Bop,” and neither song makes any kind of sense in the film’s universe) the orphans are transported into Neverland. Whereas Barrie’s creation was a sometimes dangerous yet fanciful world that melded all of the most universal boyhood daydreams into single setting, Wright’s is a dimly lit purgatory, where kidnapped orphans toil in the Pixum mines of diva-esque pirate leader Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who supervises from his floating airship. To maintain order, Blackbeard routinely makes troublemakers walk the plank into a bed of rocks.
This fate befalls Peter on his first day, yet he shocks the onlookers by taking flight just as he’s about to go splat. Recaptured, he soon finds himself in Blackbeard’s captain’s quarters, where he explains to Peter that an ancient prophecy foretold a chosen one with the ability to fly, the child of a fairy prince and human mother who would someday come to defeat him. Sent to prison, Peter is soon joined by a swashbuckling cowboy named James Hook (Garrett Hedlund, playing the role as an Indiana Jones type with eternally gritted teeth), who sees Peter and his flying abilities as his ticket back to the real world. Abetted by Hook’s middling middle-manager buddy, Sam “Smee” Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar), Peter and Hook hijack a pirate ship and escape into the woods.
After a fashion, they wind up captured by the Neverland natives, a band of guerrilla insurrectionists who have been sabotaging Blackbeard’s mining expeditions. Though this tribe is an ethnically diverse crew, the only member with much significant screentime is also the only Caucasian, Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). Initially distrustful, Tiger Lily reveals more about Peter’s mythical parentage, engages in some go-nowhere flirtation with Hook, and tries to ferry them away to a mystical fairy archive of some sort. Blackbeard is of course in hot pursuit, desperate to procure more of his organic anti-wrinkle treatment.
Wright offers a number of solid action sequences along the way — one an airborne martial-arts routine on trampolines, another blatantly lifted from “Avatar” — and makes sure the narrative can accommodate cameos from some of Barrie’s greatest hits, including a humpback-sized crocodile and a school of mermaids (all played by Cara Delevingne with slightly different makeup). But at no point in the entire film is any character allowed to have any fun at all, which is a rather devastating flaw for a movie that’s supposed to be set in an eternal wonderland of play and arrested childhood innocence. (Though it tends to be remembered more fondly than it deserves, Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” at least understood the core appeal of the Peter Pan story.)
Ironically, Wright had previously proven intuitively capable of tackling a fractured fairy tale: In 2011’s “Hanna,” the director took a violent, adult-themed action film and cleverly invested it with enough Brothers Grimm elements to make an intoxicatingly strange brew. Here he takes an actual magical children’s tale and imbues it with the most hackneyed of contemporary fantasy-action tropes, and the inverse combination does not possess nearly the same thrill. It’s also odd how little fun screenwriter Jason Fuchs has reimagining this universe; even the pairing of future adversaries Hook and Peter fails to pan out in any memorable ways.
With a camera that is constantly, purposefully on the move, Wright’s gift for showily ostentatious filmmaking is as pronounced as ever, though the sheer unreality of so much of this lavishly designed, massively computer-enhanced world means that it’s harder to be impressed at the physicality of his choreography. (The screening attended was in 3D, which actually diminishes a number of Wright’s compositions; scenes of flying especially feel strangely non-transporting, with tiny stereoscopic figures hovering above flat, undifferentiated backgrounds.) Despite the film’s overall dimness, cinematographers Seamus McGarvey and John Mathieson offer a number of striking, oil-painterly canvasses, and Jacqueline Durran’s wild costumes are all flamboyantly eye-catching, even if Tiger Lily’s getup looks a bit like an explosion at the Etsy distribution center.