J.M. Barrie's famed literary figure who refused to grow up has seen a near-countless stream of screen adaptations over the yearsamong them, Disney's 1953 animated classic "Peter Pan," the magical 1960 filmed stage version with Mary Martin, Steven Spielberg's 1991 semi-sequel "Hook" starring Robin Williams, P.J. Hogan's excellent, largely faithful 2003 picture
with Jeremy Sumpter, and 2014's televised "Peter Pan Live!" featuring Allison Williams. Positioned as a revisionist origin tale unveiling how Peter became the ageless boy from Neverland, "Pan" is a lavish $150-million production with a decidedly restless spirit. Refusing to play by the rules of more commercial family fare, director Joe Wright's (2011's "Hanna
") eye-candy adventure isn't afraid of going dark, not only at the hands of the fantastical villains located at the second star to the right and straight on 'til morning, but also by the imminently real dangers of World War II. As written by Jason Fuchs (2012's "Ice Age: Continental Drift
"), "Pan" is a little all over the place, neither following through on its ambitious heap of ideas nor satisfactorily interlocking with the Barrie story so many know and love. In spite of its deficiencies (mostly at the scripting level), credit must be given for how arresting the story and visuals remain.
As a newborn, Peter (Levi Miller) was left by desperate mother Mary (Amanda Seyfried) on the doorstep of London's The Lambert Home for Boys. Twelve years later, he is at the mercy of the vicious Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke) just as war-torn air attacks place everyone in immediate peril. When Peter is abducted in the night by a pirate crew who sweep him off to Neverland, he is suddenly confronted with an entirely new set of threats. Narrowly escaping execution (and discovering in the process he can fly) when he dares to question the megalomaniacal, slave-driving Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) on his motives for mining for pixie dust, Peter goes on the run with fellow prisoner Hook (Garrett Hedlund). Peter is convinced his long-lost mother may be found in Neverland's hidden Fairy Kingdom, but Blackbeard, who has become privy to a prophecy pinpointing the boy as the one responsible for his ultimate demise, has plans to supersede his journey.
"Pan" could definitely frighten very young children in a similar (if not quite as intense) fashion as 1985's "Return to Oz." The opening pits Peter against spiteful, unforgiving nuns set against the backdrop of the London Blitz, then follows this up with a scene where orphans are snatched out of their beds by a creepy clown yo-yoing from an opening in the ceiling. In Neverland, Blackbeard shoots people (off-screen) point-blank in the head and inhales from a suspicious apparatus that turns out to be an age-rejuvenation machine. Meanwhile, one child is forced to walk the plank and is shoved to his deatha fact that is skimmed over but indisputably inferred. The world(s) Peter inhabits are not safe places and they shouldn't have to be.
There is enough whimsy and wonder, however, to counterbalance the bleaker elements, helping to heighten Peter's fight. His transport to Neverland on a pirate ship sailing beyond the boundaries of the earth's gravitational pull is stunningly conceived, as is the introduction to his magnificent destinationa place of otherworldly vistas, the skies populated with aqua spheres where exotic fish and baby crocodiles swim. There are exquisitely imagined flashbacks told in the form of underwater conjurings and a swirling memory tree, plenty of daring chases in convincing effects-driven surroundings markedly less garish than the similar ones in 2014's "Maleficent
," and two unapologetically anachronistic musical numbers performed by Blackbeard and his enslaved minersNirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and The Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." The use of these songs is startling yet thrilling, a perfect example of director Joe Wright's willingness to think outside the box. Had he followed through with these rockin' interludes for the duration much like Baz Luhrmann did in 2001's "Moulin Rouge
," the film would have been better for it and perhaps not quite as erratic as it sometimes is apt to be.
Newcomer Levi Miller has that special charisma that most of the best child actors have, an uninhibited, non-preening authenticity that seems to come natural. He stands out without tryinga gift which certainly benefits him as Peter Pan. Miller carries the proceedings with wide-eyed determination and a longing reverberating in his soul for his mum. As Blackbeard, Hugh Jackman (2015's "Chappie
") munches the scenery but plays his role with nary a wink. This is the right choice, helping to make his fearsome character someone who must be stopped. Garrett Hedlund (2014's "Lullaby
") portrays a very different, handsomely roguish Hook from the one in the typical "Peter Pan" story; in this movie's timeline, he still has both hands intact and is Peter's friend and confidante. Rooney Mara (2013's "Side Effects
") effectively underplays Tiger Lily, an earthy native who joins Peter and Hook on their quest. The suggestion of a flirtation between she and Hook is brought up and then abruptly dropped, presumably meant to be a tease of things to come in future installments likely not to be made unless this one is a runaway box-office hit.
"Neverland is a dream from which you can never awake." So portentously utters Blackbeard in "Pan," a conceptually creative, ravishingly mounted project undermined by the desire to be the first in a new franchise when chances of a continuation are slim. The film frequently falls into this trap, setting up themes at the onset which never materialize. In an opening voiceover, Amanda Seyfried's (2015's "Ted 2
") Mary states that sometimes friends begin as enemies, and enemies as friends. By the end, the central characters remain steadfast to the same alliances they started with, and there is still no suggestion of Hook and Pan's adversarial relationship to come. Judged as its own free-standing entity, "Pan" nevertheless stands out from the crowd of modern family features, driven by a desire to match its title character's rebellious essence. It is always better to be ambitious and work only some of the time than to never, or rarely, try at all.