Floating pirate ships and fairy dust highs: blockbuster adaptation of Barrie's classic must be seen to be believed

Also opening this week:

• Youth PanPanPanPan


Rating PanPanPanPan

Directed by Joe Wright. Starring Cara Delevingne, Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara, Garrett Hedlund, Paul Kaye, Nonso Anozie, Levi Miller, Bronson Webb, Julian Seager, Kathy Burke, Adeel Akhtar, Jack Lowden, Deborah Rosan, Amy Morgan, Harry Lister Smith, Jamie Beamish, Jamie Wilson, Aaron Monaghan. Written by Jason Fuchs, from characters created by J.M. Barrie.

It’s a title that will describe most of the reviews. Well, at least Spielberg’s Hook no longer has to suffer the burden of being the biggest Peter Pan misfire to hit the big screen. 

Pan, a CGI-fueled departure for director Joe Wright (Hanna, Anna Karenina), is one of the strangest $150 million blockbusters ever to hit the screen: it’s a fantastic world of creatures, characters, worlds, and ideas that might feel at home in a Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton movie, but it completely lacks the overarching vision required to rein everything in and sustain such a film. 

In short: it’s a mess. 

The premise is agreeable: what happened before Peter Pan brought Wendy, John, and Michael to Neverland? How did Captain Hook lose his hand?

Pan is a Peter Pan “origin” story, that tale so oft-told because studio execs apparently don’t think audiences can accept the presence of a fantastic character without knowing exactly how he came into being. That mentality is no longer limited to superhero movies, so now one of the 20th century’s most beloved literary creations gets explained away in a blockbuster backstory just like Spider-Man

How did Peter Pan become Peter Pan, the boy who can fly and never ages? Well, just like Neo and Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker before him, he’s the Chosen One. ‘Nuff said. 

Pan opens in what seems to be WWII-era London, as bombs drop around the city and a crew of war-room operators move toy pieces through a giant tabletop map. Here, Peter (Levi Miller, in a promising performance that carries the movie) and friend Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) butt heads with nuns at the local orphanage over war rations and stay up late at night to find out just where all their friends are disappearing to. 

That’s when they discover a giant, floating pirate ship, which kidnaps young boys from the orphanage (an arrangement the nuns are apparently OK with). Given that this is a war zone, the pirates find themselves chased by RAF forces until they head to outer space and Peter, tied to a rope, floats in the nothingness in a sequence cribbed from Gravity

Eventually, they land on Neverland: an alien planet that looks something like the world of Avatar, complete with giant spheres of water floating in mid-air and monsters swimming inside of them. The pirates send the orphan boys they’ve kidnapped to work in the fairy dust mines alongside tens (hundreds?) of thousands of others. 

Now, I’m thinking two things at this point. The pirates have mastered interplanetary space travel: is kidnapping a handful of boys at a time from the middle of a war zone really the best way to build their labor force?

And do we really need to see any of this stuff? J.M. Barrie’s original stories never literalized Neverland as an alien planet and audiences were fine with it. 

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In Neverland, Peter runs afoul of the adult performers who dominate the movie. There’s Blackbeard, the hot-for-fairy-dust pirate leader played by Hugh Jackman in a no-holds-barred performance that somehow manages to combine Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow with Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth (he even inhales the fairy dust through an oxygen mask). It’s the kind of thing you just gotta see to believe. 

Then there’s Garret Hedlund’s Hook, presented here as a dashing Han Solo-esque rogue. Yeah, that’s right: Captain Hook is an Indiana Jones hero complete with fedora (more along the lines of Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness), and Peter’s best friend in Neverland. How did they become such bitter enemies? That’s a question this movie never answers. 

And lastly, there’s Rooney Mara’s Tiger Lily, princess of the Neverland’s native tribe that battles the pirates. Unlike her co-stars, Mara’s work here is so dialed-down that her colorful costumes seem to be doing most of the work.

Despite being featured in the above-the-line cast, Amanda Seyfried has about a minute of screen time – mostly shrouded in CGI – as Peter’s mother, while Cara Delevingne has half that, and no dialogue, as a trio of friendly mermaids. 

The plot, as it were, involves the fate of the world and the hero’s journey of Peter, which is boiled down to the need to overcome his fear of heights and fly. Because, somehow, flying solves everything, even though the pirates have all these flying ships.

It takes some skill, I thought, to cram all of Barrie’s wonderful creations into the same storyline we see in every modern blockbuster, and set it amongst a sea of ugly CGI and the garishly colorful set design borrowed from Spielberg’s Hook. Credit where credit’s due. 

Pan is simply nuts – it’s the kind of off-the-wall bizarre you might enjoy in original material like Jupiter Ascending, but feels genuinely off-putting when it’s an adaptation of a classic piece of literature (see also: Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers). For your Peter Pan fix, check out the 2003 film with Jason Isaacs, which remains the best live-action version of Barrie’s most famous work.

Note: Pan is screening in both English-language and Czech-dubbed versions in Prague cinemas. Check showtimes before heading out to the cinema.

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