When the Peter Pan of “Pan” first spies Neverland, he’s just flown in on an airborne pirate ship, only to be greeted by hundreds of buccaneers serenading their captain with a rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” So much for yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum. Inserting a grunge anthem into a tale that’s been transplanted from the turn of the 20th century to World War II is already a strange choice. But it’s hardly the strangest one in this latest addition to the origin-story craze.
Were audiences desperate to learn what J.M. Barrie’s famous flying imp was up to before he became the leader of the Lost Boys? Maybe not. According to Jason Fuchs’s screenplay, the mischievous Peter (Levi Miller) is a 12-year-old living in a London orphanage when he is kidnapped by pirates who deliver him — along with other sad-eyed orphans — into the clutches of the evil Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who forces them to spend their days mining for fairy dust. Why? Vanity, of course.
Blackbeard is perpetually over-accessorized with ruffles and crow-feather collars, styling his jet-black toupee in an elaborate bouffant that rivals Donald Trump’s. But without his daily dose of magic dust, the dandy transforms into a wrinkled old man. If only Botox had existed. Instead, Blackbeard vows to strip-mine the island into rubble.
The only thing that stands in his way is a prophecy about a flying boy who will lead the island’s natives — both humans and fairies — in an uprising against the resource-hungry pirate. We can all guess who that is, but in case there’s any question, Peter wears a pendant in the shape of a pan flute. (What, a frying pan was too obvious?) Peter isn’t convinced he’s The One, given that he has only flown once before, and accidentally at that. But Blackbeard is taking no chances. He imprisons Peter, but the boy manages to escape with the help of two allies: James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) — yes, that Hook — and Sam Smiegel (Adeel Akhtar).
And that’s just a small sliver of the plot. Barrie’s original work deserves more than a stale narrative with the old “chosen one” chestnut. But that’s what we get, along with a touch of “Before They Were Villains.” Some of the stunning visuals compensate for a meandering, overstuffed and lackluster plot. Known for his expert camerawork and lush imagery, director Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina”) showcases those talents here. Live action gives way to spectacular stop-motion animation in which characters tell each other stories from the past. The island’s colorful “neverbirds” look and sound a bit like velociraptors from “Jurassic World.” Then there are the fight scenes on flying ships.
But no amount of CGI can distract from the acting, which comes across as more of an extreme sport than an art form. Jackman bloviates and sneers as if he’s onstage, trying to ensure that every gesture reaches the cheap seats. And Hedlund channels John Wayne, but with less subtlety, as he swaggers and flirts, belaboring every syllable as he drops his pitch by an octave. In counterpoint, Rooney Mara’s Tiger Lily makes for a warrior princess whose elaborate headdresses are as impressive as her fighting skills.
But what about Peter? Amid all this swirl, the central character doesn’t make much of an impression. The narrator (Amanda Seyfried) tells us that, “sometimes, to truly understand how things end, we must first know how they begin.” “Pan” doesn’t deliver on its own promise. The movie doesn’t so much enhance our understanding of the flying boy as it demonstrates how little thought went into crafting his back story.
PG. At area theaters. Contains fantasy action violence, some scary images and language. 111 minutes.