One source of the odd poignancy — and oddness, period — of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan series is the ordinariness of the magical title character's origin. In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906), readers learn that Peter Pan was once a regular London boy who flew out the window (OK, that part's odd). He returned to find it locked, and his parents inside cooing over a new baby. What could be more terrifying to a young reader?
Thus Barrie gave his fantasy a firm base in all-too-real experiences — sibling rivalry, fear of abandonment. By contrast, the new overblown fantasia Pan, which purports to be Peter's real origin story, is based almost solely on other movies.
In 2010, Tim Burton made Alice in Wonderland a monster hit by turning Lewis Carroll's famously bizarre tale into a conventional quest narrative modeled on Star Wars and the Harry Potter saga. Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) and writer Jason Fuchs have taken an almost identical approach with Pan. The result is a film as stuffed with visual bric-a-brac as a Victorian junk shop, and devoid of any reason to care.
In this version, Peter (Levi Miller) is a trouble-making 12-year-old weathering the London Blitz in a cartoonishly awful orphanage. The nuns are so awful that they're surreptitiously selling their charges to a crew of pirates, who nab Peter and bear him off in their flying ship to Neverland. There our hero joins crews of children forced to mine "pixum," aka pixie dust, for pirate boss Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who's addicted to the stuff. Wearing a glittery black bustle and prone to trancey pontifications, à la Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Blackbeard also, for no good reason, periodically requires his young workers to join in a rousing chorus of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Such details might trick you into thinking Pan is wondrously weird, or at least a fascinating travesty in the Baz Luhrmann mode. No such luck. The film offers as many random curiosities as a carnival midway, yet its relentlessly breakneck action and relentlessly familiar plot are about as fun as listening to a prerecorded barker's spiel.
Wright has always been a creator of visual phantasmagorias, but his best films have strong source texts — Austen, Tolstoy, McEwan — to give meaning to the surface distractions. Here, having jettisoned most of what makes Pan Pan, he's left with a Neverland that causes Avatar flashbacks, a Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) who looks like she raided a curtain shop for her "native" headdress, and a bunch of "chosen one" mumbo-jumbo about Peter's special destiny.
With the notable exception of Mara, everybody plays as if to a live theater audience, telegraphing emotions such as wonder, fear and insecurity (because convention dictates that even the cocky Peter have a crisis of faith before he proves how very special he is). Typical of the film's slapdash opportunism is the portrayal of Peter's future nemesis, James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), whom he meets as a fellow prisoner of Blackbeard. Hedlund has been costumed like Indiana Jones and given the Han Solo role of a reluctant ally — allusions that might be fun, if the actor appeared to be having any.
No plausible evolution is ever sketched between this devil-may-care Hook and the bitter, spoilsport Hook of the canon. Rather than sow the seeds of conflict, the screenplay simply makes occasional winking references to future events, as if Fuchs had reasoned, Plenty of time to work that out in the sequels.
For a child who's not already well versed in the fantasy film genre, Pan could still be a magical experience. But it completely lacks the unfaked emotions on which children's classics are built. More frightening than anything Blackbeard does to the Lost Boys is the prospect that this movie might have sequels. Clap your hands if you believe chintzy pixie dust is no substitute for Barrie's wild magic.