Apparently it’s necessary to resurrect and remake ‘Peter Pan’ every five years. The cycle has come around again and this time fell into the unlikely hands of ‘Atonement’ and ‘Hanna’ director Joe Wright. Not content to merely go through the Neverland motions again, Wright has reinvented ‘Pan’ as a strange fantasy action origin story filled with design work caught halfway between steampunk and Terry Gilliam.
It’s a beautiful movie to look at and also an uncomfortably muddled one to experience. Perhaps the result of studio interference, Wright’s ‘Pan’ never settles into a comfortable tone that defines what the hell the movie is suppose to be. Instead, it awkward mixes reinvention and tiresome convention until all that’s left is a big mess.
Opening with a prologue that explains how this won’t be the ‘Peter Pan’ tale you or daddy are used to, viewers are thrust into a filthy orphanage in battle scarred WWII London. Peter (Levi Miller) is a young orphan convinced that his mother will return one day despite the sneering comments of the evil nuns running the place. One night, Peter and a batch of other orphans are kidnapped by a collection of clown pirates on bungee cords and pulled onto a flying ship.
From there, they fly to Neverland and are forced to work as slaves in a mine, digging through rocks for fairy dust. The evil jerk running the child slave mine is a pirate (Hugh Jackman). You might think that means he’s Captain Hook, but no, he’s Blackbeard. You see, James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) is another slave who befriends Peter and helps him escape when he appears to be the “Boy Who can Fly” savior prophesized for years following the great pirate/fairy war. (Yes, it’s a weird movie.) To find out if that’s true, Peter and Hook must find the hidden tribe of Neverland that worship lost fairies led by Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara, pretending the cross-racial casting isn’t a thing). Of course, they’re pursued by Blackbeard along the way, so clearly this thing will have to end in a gigantic CGI-assisted battle.
So… yeah… Wright’s take on ‘Peter Pan’ is certainly an odd one that differs wildly from all previous interpretations. Always a filmmaker with a striking visual sense, the director cuts loose with his first blockbuster budget and delivers some real eye-candy. The early sequences in London have a delightful Gilliam-meets-Dickens feel, peaking with a pretty great dogfight between pirate ships and WWII fighters over London. The massive slave mine of Neverland also shows promise. At the halfway point, the film is rather interesting. (At first, even the cast-against-type Jackman is pretty fun as the villainous Blackbeard.) Then things fall apart.
It begins when Hedlund’s version of Hook opens his mouth for the first time and spits out some sort of garbled John Huston impression. You might think it’s a joke or a put-on, but no, it’s the actor’s choice and is endlessly distracting. The awkward casting of Mara (admittedly a pretty excellent actress) feels wrong, as does the way the story transforms into a ‘Lord of the Rings’-style action/fantasy epic rather than the twisted Grimm fairy tale of the starting point. The movie is rather muddled and comes across as though too many chefs had to decide how to reinvent the ‘Peter Pan’ narrative.
Wright’s dark WWII fairy tale is interesting, but the tedious big action finale is dully repetitive. Performances range from amusingly quirky to nauseatingly quirky. It’s all just much-too-much, and worst of all the filmmakers aren’t even allowed to stick with their reinvention guns, awkwardly cramming in as many unnecessary references to the classic Pan tale as possible, often through distracting ADR.
There’s a chance that at one point Joe Wright’s ‘Pan’ was an intriguing spin on an old tale, but it’s tough to tell where it went wrong. Maybe the script was rewritten to death. Perhaps it suffered garbled editorial tampering. Or there’s a chance that Wright never even had a cohesive vision in the first place. It’s difficult to say and most likely a combination of all those options was responsible. Regardless, ‘Pan’ can hardly be described as a success, even if it’s difficult to dismiss as an outright failure. On the plus side, the 3D eye candy is impressive. So, if you can somehow ignore all the dialogue and storytelling or perhaps leave at the halfway mark, you might enjoy yourself. Otherwise, it’s best to steer clear.