“Pan,” the origin story of Peter Pan from the fertile imagination of director Joe Wright, is an action-adventure movie featuring “Harry Potter” level darkness tempered with humour, slapstick and Wright’s incredible visuals.
“Sometimes to know how things end,” says the opening narration, “we have to learn how they begin.” That means taking us back to London, circa World War II when Peter (Levi Miller) was a baby, abandoned by his mother at an orphanage. Turns out the high-spirited boy was born of a fairy prince and a human girl, and when he is kidnapped by the evil pirate Blackbeard (an almost unrecognizable Hugh Jackman)—“ He’s the pirate all other pirates fear,” they say. “The original nightmare!”—he soon learns his fate is to go to Neverland—a colourful kingdom that looks like it would have pretty good tiki bars—and lead an uprising against the tyrannical pirate. With the help of Indiana Jones wannabe James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) Peter learns of his mother (Amanda Seyfried), his powers and his place in this magical world as the leader of the lost boys.
“Pan” is a high-tech, old-fashioned adventure that doesn’t handle kids with kid gloves. From the evil looking clowns that snatch orphans from their beds to Peter’s longing for his absent mother, the movie is unafraid to mine the nightmares and emotions that keep children up at night. It’s all in service of the story, however, and never feels gratuitous. Instead Wright fills the screen with wonder and imagination, from giant floating oceans and a chicken who lays an egg mid air to Smee’s rows of tiny teeth to the skeletal Neverbirds, all dreamlike images that should fire imaginations rather than inspire bad dreams.
Wright sneaks in a few treats for the ears as well. The Ramones’s “Blitzkrieg Bob” makes a remarkably effective pirate chant—“Hey ho, Let’s go!”—and “Smells Like Teen Spirit’s” refrain, “Here we are now, Entertain us,” becomes a catchy work song for pixie dust miners.
In every scene is newcomer Miller. As Peter he puts you in the mind of Daniel Radcliffe, a self-possessed performer who does a good job at battling the special effects and Jackman’s scene chewing. Jackman hands in a highly theatrical, but very amusing performance as the dandy but dangerous pirate.
The casting of Mara as the indigenous tribal princess Tiger Lily has been a lightening rod for controversy. She handles herself well, but it would have been nice to see an actor of Native American background take on the role.
Near the end of the movie Neverland is described as, “a dream from which you never wake up,” but by the time “Pan” gets to the climax, shot in a pixie dust vault that resembles Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the film becomes less dreamlike. A noisy conclusion to the story allows the special effects to take over and “Pan” becomes a little less magical and a bit more mundane.