Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Joe Wright
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Levi Miller, Amanda Seyfried, Nonso Anozie, Kathy Burke, Adeel Akhtar, Bronson Webb, Cara Delvingne, Paul Kaye.
J M Barrie first created the character of Peter Pan, the boy who could fly and who never grew up, back in 1902. He then featured the character in the 1904 play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which enjoyed incredible success. Since then the character has featured in several stories, and been filmed many times, firstly in a silent film in 1924, but most notably in the animated Disney film from 1953, in which child actor Bobby Driscoll voiced the character. He was also played by Jeremy Sumpter in P J Hogan’s live action version in 2003. There have also been a number of different interpretations of the beloved character, including Robin Williams as an adult Peter in Spielberg’s 1991 fantasy Hook. And now we get what passes as a disappointing and unnecessary origins story, telling us how an orphan child named Peter came to Neverland in the first place.
The film opens with the baby Peter being abandoned at an orphanage by his mother Mary (Amanda Seyfried, wasted) and raised in rather harsh conditions. Those early scenes set in the orphanage are a little bleak and austere, and are more Charles Dickens than J M Barrie.
A bit like that other famous orphan Oliver Twist, the curious young Peter (played by newcomer Levi Miller) wonders why their food is so lacking in flavour and variety. It is war time and rationing, but Peter suspects that Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), the cruel head of the orphanage, is hoarding food for herself and her fellow nuns. But he also becomes concerned about the mysterious disappearance of other boys from the orphanage during the night. He comes to suspect that Mother Barnabas is also selling orphans.
Then one night Peter, along with many others, is snatched from his bed by bungee jumping pirates and whisked off to the magical kingdom of Neverland to serve the feared Captain Blackbeard (an almost unrecogniseable Hugh Jackman). There he is forced to work in a mine, where hundreds of slaves are digging for Pixium, a magical substance that allows Blackbeard to maintain his youthful looks. It is here that Peter discovers that he can fly, and learns that he is the hero spoken about in an ancient prophecy. Peter is supposedly the leader meant to bring about the downfall of Blackbeard.
Peter manages to escape Blackbear’s clutches with the help of the swashbuckling James Hook (Garret Hedlund, from Tron: Legacy, etc), who seems to have borrowed some of Hans Solo’s best moments. At this stage, Peter and Hook are friends and allies, united against Blackbeard. This origins story is set long before Hook loses his hand in a sword fight with Peter and becomes his arch nemesis. Hook and Peter also meet the feisty Tiger Lily (played by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara) who helps Peter come to terms with his destiny.
Written by actor turned writer Jason Fuchs (Ice Age: Continental Drift, etc), Pan is something of a mess and its story is a little convoluted at times. It replaces the usual innocence familiar to the Peter Pan stories of our youth with darker layers and an uneven tone. Its themes of warfare, child labour and the fulfilling of one’s destiny give this take on Pan a darker edge, and this is not really a film for younger children. The film’s tone is moody, pretty dour, but it is also rather dull and I became bored with it very quickly.
Director Joe Wright (best known for the superb Atonement, etc) overloads the film with some eye catching visuals and CGI generated sequences that become overwhelming. Much of the reputed $150million budget can be seen on the screen. Visually much of the film is reminiscent of the idiosyncratic steam punk style of Terry Gilliam’s films, with flying pirate ships, and a colourful array of eccentric characters, etc. There are some eye catching costumes courtesy of Jacqueline Durran.
Two cinematographers including Wright regular Seamus McGarvey and John Mathieson, a regular collaborator on the films of Ridley Scott, have worked on the look of the film. They have shot the film in 3D, which adds little to the surface look of the film, and renders some of the visuals rather dark. Wright also adds some jarring contemporary touches, such as an ensemble of slaves singing Nirvana’s hit Smells Like Teen Spirit to greet Blackbeard when he makes his first appearance.
The performances are something of a mixed bag too. Jackman, who normally has such gravitas and a strong presence, overplays his role here and comes across like a pantomime villain. He normally plays the nice guy, and cast against type as a villain he seems uncomfortable, and this almost cartoonish performance is a misstep in his career. A controversial casting decision sees Mara cast as Tiger Lily, who is normally depicted as a native American Indian. She seems miscast here. Adeel Akhtar (from Four Lions, etc) brings some much needed humour to his role as Sam Smee Smiegel, Hook’s hapless assistant.
Young Queenslander Miller has an engaging and strong screen presence in the title role, and he is the best thing about this curious misfire.
Despite the flaws in Spielberg’s 1991 film, at least he had a better handle on the enduring appeal and charms of Barrie’s character than either Wright or Fuchs do here. Spielberg was able to tap into that childish innocence of the story, whereas Fuchs and Wright have a darker sensibility that doesn’t always work.