“Pan” is a remarkable accomplishment. It is overlong, over-the-top and self-indulgently idiosyncratic. It’s also wackadoodle original, stylish and well worth seeing. Its agreeable virtues don’t outnumber its many flaws, but they slug out the conflict to an entertaining split decision.
This peculiar prequel arrives from director Joe Wright, who adapted “Pride and Prejudice” with marvelous richness and “Anna Karenina” with great metafictional touches. Wright’s latest book-to-film project treats its source material to a zany graphic novel rewrite several degrees more original and less sensible. It eliminates characters from “Peter Pan” and reinvents the plot points. The 103-year-old tale moves to World War II-era London, which Jason Fuchs’ script envisions as a Dickensian blend of awful social conditions, amusingly repulsive characters, Nazi blitz bombers and large pirate ships sailing across the night sky.
DIRECTED BY: Joe Wright
STARRING: Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara and Kathy Burke
RATED: PG GRADE: B
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
As you might expect from those airborne vessels, things go overboard in this film quite a lot. Our Peter is not a flying hero yet, but an orphan waif. Deposited by his mother at an uninviting orphanage, Peter (Levi Miller) encounters petrifying Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke). Part nun, part gorgon, she operates the children’s workhouse as a kidnappers’ loading dock. When the urchins are asleep, bungee-jumping child snatchers drop through the dormitory’s skylights, grab a dozen youngsters, then hurl back up in the air with their captives, offloading them in Neverland. Soon the boys are worse off than before, hammering in the mines to find “pixum,” vital magic particles that will keep Neverland’s wicked emperor Blackbeard blooming with youthful appeal at 250 years old. Without it he looks much worse for wear and feels excessively murderous.
As Blackbeard, Hugh Jackman is a colorful mix of ennui and evil. Combine the ego of a diva with pale makeup, the hairpiece of Marie Antoinette, the wardrobe of Louis XIV and various feathers, rings and ruffles, and you get the picture. He’s also an incurable hambone, leading his huge army of young prisoners in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to welcome the new slaves. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/ Here we are now, entertain us” and on and on and on. Even if this makes zero sense in the context of Peter Pan, it’s twisted fun to revisit one of the most important anthems in punk rock history.
The excellent Jackman is a kick, but Garrett Hedlund is the gem of the piece. He plays Peter’s roguish new chum James Hook, who is not yet a captain, a hand amputee or villainous.
Hedlund’s character resembles a North American bohemian cowboy, yet another countercultural collision in the piece. Hedlund brings a self-possessed Han Solo smirk to every word of his dialogue. Again, it makes no sense, but it’s the sort of flaming Molotov that Wright throws at his jolting joy ride five times a minute.
In this superhero’s coming-of-age story, Peter is a fairly minor supporting character. This is a story essentially taking place in the realm of a child’s imagination, where male adults are odd and troublesome, the world is a trampoline to be bounced on, and flashbacks arrive in cartoon form. Women are not too relevant, unless they are heroines like princess Tiger Lily (played by Rooney Mara — like millennials, Wright doesn’t see race).
Peter enjoys her tomboy battle skills; Hook responds to her like “a mosquito, my libido” from that Nirvana song having seized control of his mind’s pleasure center.
What was Wright aiming for here? No idea. The movie races ahead like a lunatic action-adventure variety show. “Pan” is a quirky fantasy about a fantasy. Is that an opportunity missed or a rare creative prize? Yes.