In “Pan,” young Peter learns he can fly in the grimmest possible context, as he plummets to his presumptive death after being kicked, viciously, off a plank hundreds of feet above a rock quarry.
In the new film directed by Joe Wright, Neverland lies high above the clouds as usual, but much of its real estate has been turned over to a miserable steampunk mining village in the “Mad Max: Fury Road” vein. Kidnapped slave boys dig for Pixum, also known as pixie dust. The precious glowing stuff provides the youth serum coveted by the pirate Blackbeard, played by Hugh Jackman in Kenneth Branagh’s “Wild Wild West” goatee, a pederastic air and Alastair Sim’s teeth.
Blackbeard’s war against the natives, a multicultural gaggle led by lily-white Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, co-starring her midriff), grinds on in another part of this cesspool. Back on Earth it’s 1940, and London endures the Luftwaffe blitz. But life’s no easier for an orphan boy in Neverland, where unlucky newcomers are greeted with a menacing male chorus of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
That’s a lot of lousy ideas crammed into the first 30 minutes. The whole movie’s like that. You walk out of “Pan” feeling flattened and bummed out. Reportedly a $150 million production, it represents a larger strip-mining operation: the pillaging of a durable but not invincible pop culture myth, born in 1902, when J.M. Barrie wrote of an infant version of Peter Pan.
For more than a century, various adaptations on screens and stages have asked if we believe in fairies. From Mary Martin to Cathy Rigby, we’ve heard one androgynous gamine after another singing about how she’s gotta crow. And now, thanks to “Pan,” in addition to the most awesomely unnecessary prequel in recent memory, we have the official worst-ever Peter Pan film adaptation of any sort. And that includes “Hook.”
Speaking of which! In “Pan,” Hook becomes a very different fellow, more of an Anakin Skywalker pre-Darth. In affect and costuming, Peter’s comrade in the bowels of King Blackbeard’s Mines is a cowboy variation on Indiana Jones, played by Garrett Hedlund, who borrows John Huston’s growly vocal intonations to overemphasize the witless wisecracks provided him by screenwriter Jason Fuchs.
In this origin story, Peter Pan and Capt. Hook are sort-of pals, not sworn adversaries. The digital crocodiles are whale-size in “Pan,” and the story eventually depicts an attempted fairy holocaust perpetuated by fire-spewing hoses wielded by Blackbeard’s crew. The digital effects are relentless and numbing. The actors either do too much (Jackman) or not enough (Mara), with the exception of Australian newcomer Levi Miller. He brings a gravity and a relatability to Peter. Also, director Wright manages one effective moment, a clever and spooky medium shot of the first two London boys’ home residents captured by sky pirates at night. It’s only a few seconds; the rest of the film lasts approximately 12 years.
Wright has made good films (“Atonement”) and mixed-up, crazily theatrical ones (“Anna Karenina”). With “Pan” he has what I hope will always mark his career low point – the most joyless revisionism since Disney’s “The Lone Ranger.”
Cast: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund and Rooney Mara
Director: Joe Wright
Rated PG (for fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material)