It’s said this fantastical prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic tale was inspired by screenwriter Jason Fuchs’ childhood fascination with the boy who refused to grow up. But while Pan certainly feels like the wild sugar rush off-shoot of adolescent dreams, the bursts of magical imagination never quite gel into an enjoyable adventure – at least not enough to off-set a relentlessly dull plot and characters you couldn’t give one jot about.
A few nudge-wink foreshadowings aside, Joe Wright’s Pan seems determined to forge its own unique path, acting as a sort-of origin story for how Peter Pan and Captain Hook came to be locked in a perennial war on Neverland in the first place.
Yet, because Barrie’s beloved characters are so entrenched in our collective cultural psyches it’s incredibly hard to accept any deviations from the original story and as a consequence every change to Peter and his cohorts’ personalities never quite rings true.
After a swift film noir-aping opening that reveals just how a new-born Peter was abandoned outside a London orphanage by his mother, we skip ahead several years to find our soon-to-be Pan (Miller) trapped in an Oliver Twist-style version of Blitz-era London from which he longs to escape.
His wish is seemingly granted one starry night when he’s nabbed by a crew of bungee-jumping pirates and whisked away to the mystical realm of Neverland. The ever-discerning Peter quickly discovers all is not well in his new home, with the land and its indigenous people crushed under the thumb of ruthless pirate Blackbeard (Jackman).
Eventually escaping the slavery of the fairy dust mines, Peter bands together with Garrett Hedlund’s enigmatic loner James Hook (here with two hands – turns out the name was just a coincidence) and Rooney Mara’s tribal warrior Tiger Lily to put an end to Blackbeard’s rule and secure Peter’s destiny as the hero Pan.
You’ve got to hand it to Wright and his boundless imagination – his Neverland is like never before. With Rousseau-esque feral jungles, neon-branded pirate ships that skim across the clouds and whole oceans contained within floating bubbles, Pan’s world is a cornucopia of outlandish, wildly eccentric ideas.
The action is just as dazzling. Wright fully embraces the epic scope of the production to keep the thrills coming, opening with a bracing dash and dare across the London skyline as Blackbeard’s child catching rig is pursued by dogged Spitfires.
There’s plenty more swashbuckling antics and chases along the way, but while it never lacks for spectacle, that’s not always such a good thing, especially when Wright is often so busy racing towards the next realty-smashing set-piece he neglects to develop his characters.
In fact, it’s the chaos of Wright’s rambling vision that causes Pan its biggest problem. Part unhinged panto, part swashbuckling romp, part environmental fable and part anachronistic grunge musical, the film is a hodge-podge of random ideas that lacks a unifying theme.
Wright references pretty much every film you could think of – Matilda, Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, you name it – but lurches between these opposing styles so frequently you’re never quite sure what the film is supposed to be. And I doubt Wright knows either.
Still, at least Wright has some original ideas, which is more than can be said for Fuchs’ script. The narrative is a by-the-numbers ‘chosen one’ tale, with Peter doubting whether he has what it takes to become a hero, and rather than trying to subvert the tired tropes, Fuchs opts to follow them to the letter. The result is tiresomely predictable.
Despite it all, Pan’s cast admirably give committed performances throughout. Hugh Jackman has lots of fun sinking his teeth into the scenery as fuss-budget villain Blackbeard, flouncing around with such whimsy you’d think he was on stage of the Nottingham Playhouse during panto season.
Newcomer Levi Miller is endearingly earnest as mischievous ragamuffin Peter, showing enough to suggest he could do great thinks if afforded a better character. Meanwhile, Hedlund and Mara manage to overcome their respective one-note roles to elicit some charm, though their rushed romance never truly sparkles, and Utopia’s Adeel Akhtar offers some much needed comic relief as a pencil pushing Smee.
What’s missing is any attempt to explore who these characters are or what motivates them. We’re repeatedly told Peter needs to believe in himself, but his self doubt seems to manifest only as occasional vertigo. We also learn that Blackbeard is using fairy dust to stave off the encroaching hand of death without ever touching upon the existential questions this throws up, while Hook is repeatedly depicted as a selfish coward only to suddenly find his bravery for seemingly no reason whatsoever.
It all amounts to a big who cares. The climax is another high-octane aerial battle, as both sides make one final push to end the war once and for all, but there’s very little in the way of tension or even vague interest by this point as you’ll have long since let you’re attention wander.
Pan may have started out as a fascinating idea and boast some wonderfully imaginative inventions and impressive visually effects, but the story lacks the creative fizz of the aesthetics, offering very little of substance to make it worth your while.
As a film for kids, it may just about pass water, but for everyone else, this is one coming of age story that really needs to grow up.
Runtime: 111 mins; Genre: Fantasy; Released: 16 October 2015;
Director: Joe Wright; Writers: Jason Fuchs, J. M. Barsrie (novel);
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara
Click here to watch a trailer for Pan