The Peter Pan tale is an eternal favorite that infuses just a little bit of magic into everyday life, for those who don’t want to grow up. It is rich cinematic territory that has been frequently mined on the big screen: Steven Spielberg put a modern spin on the tale with the classic “Hook,” in 1991, and now Joe Wright has spun his own version of the tale, an origin story of Peter Pan himself.
While it is positioned as a modern take on the classic, “Pan” doesn’t take place in present day. Peter (Levi Miller) lives in an orphanage in World War II London, under the watchful eye of evil, greedy nuns and the blasts of German bombs during the blitz. He’s an inquisitive boy who asks too many questions for his own good, which leads him to wonder where some of his fellow orphans are disappearing to in the night.
Turns out the boys are being trafficked into forced labor, kidnapped by clown pirates into a flying ship that battles Royal Air Force planes before it blasts them into space to the fantastical island of Never Never Land. There, they must mine for fairy dust crystals, sing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and submit to the will of a vain, greedy, preening Blackbeard the Pirate, played, fiercely, by Hugh Jackman.
After an incident, Peter is disciplined and forced to walk the plank, during which his fledgling flying abilities kick in. This brings the unwanted attention of Blackbeard, who is convinced Peter is the subject of a tribal prophecy – the boy who is the product of a human-fairy union who will lead the rebellion against him. Peter links up with a swaggering cowboy he’s met in the mine, one James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), and they take off in a stolen flying ship to find the tribal territory with warrior princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). They have hopes of finding Peter’s mother, whom he is convinced is present in some form.
Things happen in rapid-fire fashion in this plot, which is stuffed to the gills not only with twists and turns but with clown pirates and evil nuns and fairy crystals and mermaids and crocodiles and tribal rituals and backstory. It all happens so quickly, so colorfully and so theatrically that it feels at times like an insane, bonkers fever dream. The tone swings wildly, never quite finding a groove. The performance choices are either completely over-the-top (Jackman is doing his best Dustin Hoffman-inspired pirate drag), or totally baffling (Hedlund drawling and winking and dropping hokey one-liners).
Maybe it was just a hostage mentality, but somehow, in all of the craziness, the world of Never Never Land becomes strangely compelling. Make no mistake, this film falls squarely in the realm of camp classic, but it’s kind of fun in that very specific way. When the 3D isn’t overly aggressive, there are some moments of visual greatness, such as a memory tree where wood rings come to life to tell the love story of Peter’s mother and father, or memory waters illustrating Blackbeard’s battle against the faires in bubbles and waves.
“Pan” is a totally odd, wacky endeavor that is amped up by John Powell’s schizophrenic score. It seems Wright threw every idea at this film, to see what stuck and only some of the ideas truly work. But there are a few flickering moments of genius among all of the riotous melee.