If you were to tell me that there was a movie that told the story of Peter Pan as an orphan sold into slavery by evil nuns and parceled off to Neverland by pirates in a flying galleon, I’d be intrigued. If you then told me that he’d be forced — with a lot of other lost boys of varying ages who sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for no apparent reason — to work in a mine in search of some kind of crack cocaine fairy dust that Blackbeard the Pirate huffs through a steampunk-ish face mask in order to retain immortality, I’d say, “Sign me up.” And, yes, all those things — along with natives who vanish in a puff of brightly colored smoke when killed, Smee played like a Cockney Jew and a prophecy that makes Peter into some kind of Kwisatz Haderach — are in Joe Wright’s Pan. Unfortunately, this sounds a hell of a lot more interesting than it plays — something that causes me no joy to relate.
Despite having been underwhelmed by the trailer, I really had held out some hope for Pan. I knew the critical populace had been down on it, but that mattered little (if at all) to me. This was, after all, a Joe Wright picture, and I have liked everything (well, not so much 2009’s The Soloist) he’s made — except for Anna Karenina (2012), which I absolutely loved and still do. The problem is this new film simply does not work. Oh, I don’t think it’s as bad as has been claimed, but neither is it good. What it lacks more than anything is a sense of whimsy. Good Lord, Anna Karenina was more whimsical, and it was a tragedy. This is a fantasy and is almost completely whimsy-less. All too often, when it should soar, it lays there like a landed fish gasping for breath. Oh, there are moments when it works, but they remain moments in search of a film that almost isn’t there.
Wright has said that he made Pan for his children. The last time I heard a filmmaker say that was when Roman Polanski made his 2005 Oliver Twist. The results there were a solid enough version of the story with no real personality. Pan has personality, but isn’t solid in any sense of the concept. It’s certainly busy — at being busy to no real end. For all its downright bizarre trimmings, the story is rather dull. Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) is an orphan with mommy issues and a destiny, and that’s about it as far as his character is concerned. The word “generic” comes to mind. The idea of him being friends with Hook (a dreadful Garrett Hedlund doing a bargain-basement Indiana Jones) doesn’t go anywhere — unless you count ham-fisted foreshadowings of Hook minus a hand as going somewhere. Having Peter’s pan-pipe (get it?) necklace turn out to be a literal key is almost clever, but that doesn’t keep the thing from looking like one of those corrugated keys used on toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms.
What is most dismaying, though, is that Pan — with all its bright colors and strange imagery — isn’t all that stylish. That’s something I never thought I’d say about a Joe Wright film. Here, however, so much of the movie is given over to CGI effects that it loses any individual signature. The effects are driving the big scenes while Wright seems to be an onlooker. But even that doesn’t explain why Rooney Mara in a Carmen Miranda headdress just looks silly, rather than exotic or even enjoyably campy. In fact, the only camp element is Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard, and that’s a creation that works in fits and starts in its combination of over-the-top flamboyance and outright creepiness.
In the end, what we’re left with is a collection of odd ideas that never seem moored to much of anything. You get some Nirvana here, some Ramones there, a little bit of steampunk tossed in and … what? Because of the anachronistic pop songs, it’s been inevitably likened to Baz Luhrmann. But where Luhrmann could weave such into a fantastic tapestry, Wright serves up slabs that don’t seem like part of a vision. They’re just there. What I think we have mostly is a movie afraid to live up to its own inherent insanity — and that’s a great pity. I imagine it’s fine for kids (though I’ve seen it suggested that it’s too disturbing), but, all in all, you’d be better off breaking out P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan, which manages to be whimsical, stylish and a little dangerous. Rated PG for fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material.