There’s been a glut in recent years of ‘origin stories’ on film – taking a superhero or well-known fictional character, and surmising what might have happened to them before their fabled stories began. Batman and Spider-Man are among those to receive that treatment, and now it’s the turn of Peter Pan.
Coming from the gifted British director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina), Pan takes J.M. Barrie’s delightful character - the boy who can fly - and gives him a ‘back story’ quite at odds with anything Barrie might have imagined. A computer-generated special effects extravaganza, it’s way more boisterous than the source material.
It’s fair to say Barrie probably regarded his most famous creation as timeless, but he wrote about Peter Pan in the first decade of the last century, and in Pan it’s jolting that we first see Peter on screen in a London boys’ orphanage in 1940, during the Blitz. Yet these early scenes are agreeable, and have a chirpy, cheeky, boyish mood about them; you may be reminded of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver.
Peter was left on the orphanage doorstep as a baby by his mother, along with a plaintive note promising she will see him again. The nasty nun in charge of these children (Kathy Burke) has done a deal with a band of ghostly pirates who swoop down into the boys’ dormitory at night, whisk them up from their beds and transport them to a grim mining complex in another world, where they are enslaved by the dastardly pirate chief Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).
So far so good: a brisk, entertaining start. And 12-year-old Australian actor Levi Miller makes an appealing Peter – innocent, wide-eyed and potentially heart-breaking. But from this point onwards, it’s Jackman’s film.
Jackman prances around with devilish glee, dressed all in black, quipping merrily and looking generally fearsome. He’s the very essence of a pantomime villain, and his first entrance is memorable: strutting out to address his ranks of imprisoned miners, he sings Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, intoning its ‘hello, hello, hello’ chorus in broad Cockney. It makes no sense whatever, but it makes you laugh. He soon singles out Peter as a potential trouble-maker, and puts the boy in mortal danger in an impressive scene during which Peter realises he has the power of flight.
Sadly, from this point on, Pan enters into a decline that goes ever deeper. Two characters from Barrie’s original are introduced, though bafflingly changed: Captain Hook becomes plain Hook, who has two good hands, a winning smile and a good-guy demeanour; as played by Garrett Hedlund, he’s a cross between Indiana Jones and John Wayne, an ally rather than an adversary to Peter. Then there’s Tigerlily, played by Rooney Mara, re-imagined as a warrior princess of indeterminate ethnic origin. United with Peter and Hook in staying ahead of the pursuing pirates, she becomes a sort of action heroine.
Things get ever more mystifying as events progress. There’s a wordless underwater scene with three mermaids, each one played by model-actress Cara Delevingne. Why? You’re asking the wrong person.
But the big problem about Pan is that the sharp story-telling in its first half gives way to a long procession of brilliantly executed but relentless, incoherent chase scenes. They serve to leave the viewer feeling vaguely punch-drunk. This is computer-generated imagery at its finest, and clearly phenomenally expensive. (The film’s budget has been estimated at $150 million, and it’s not surprising.)
In the end, then, Pan is a disappointment. Miller and Jackman, who give their very best, are blameless - but it’s not clear who would be this film’s target audience. It’s a little too harsh for young children, its story-telling too ill-defined for older kids – and their parents and grandparents are likely to find it overlong and wearisome.
Barrie’s reputation will probably suffer no lasting harm from this bizarre adaptation; this was one origin story for which no-one was clamouring. And, with the best will in the world, it’s hard to imagine the film-going public baying for a sequel.
Read David Gritten every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.