Following in the ignominious footsteps of “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” “Prometheus,” and similar ill-conceived prequels, “Pan” explains that which needed no explanation—and does so in a manner that drains every last ounce of magic from its predecessor. In concocting an origin story for Peter Pan, the Neverland boy who never grows up, director Joe Wright proceeds from the fundamentally flawed premise that Peter is a figure of such tantalizing mystery that the means by which he became the leader of the Lost Boys is a tale worth inventing. However, unlike Darth Vader, a cloaked and hooded icon whose true nature was shrouded in secrecy, Pan’s heroism—and dedication to protecting fellow orphans in search of a home—has never demanded any elaboration, and it certainly has never required the sort of half-baked, derivative gobbledygook offered up by this sloppy first installment in a planned trilogy.
To recount the film’s myriad twists and turns would be an exercise in verbal diarrhea, so overstuffed is Jason Fuchs’ script with whiz-bang conflicts, confrontations, and chaotic spectacle. Still, the film’s overarching plot concerns Peter’s (Levi Miller) quest to find his long-lost mother (Amanda Seyfried), which takes him from a miserable English orphanage in WWII-wracked London to the airborne pirate ship of notorious Neverland baddie Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a villain whose ghoulish pallor, absurd hairpiece and matching beard, and feather-adorned armor makes him look like a Victorian-era clown. Blackbeard is introduced to the sound of his pint-sized slaves singing Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which makes absolutely no sense — unless, perhaps, Blackbeard had already traveled forward in time to grab a copy of Nevermind? But it’s in keeping with Wright’s general modus operandi of arbitrarily throwing everything and anything his audience might already be familiar with at the screen.
Peter is put to work mining for fairy’s pixie dust, which actually comes in crystalized rock form and is referred to as “pixum,” and which Blackbeard snorts through a mask-and-tube apparatus in order to stay young. In other words, in contrast to before, pixie dust doesn’t grant the power of flight (leaving the question of how Blackbeard’s ships stay afloat unanswered), but instead functions as a valuable youth-bestowing drug. This dim-witted reimagining of the supernatural is reminiscent of midichlorians-are-the-Force nonsense from ‘The Phantom Menace,’ though Wright hardly takes George Lucas’ misbegotten prequel trilogy as his only inspiration. Rather, in all sorts of ways, he apes a vast array of sources, including “Hook,” ‘Return of the Jedi,’ “Avatar,” “The Mummy,” “The Matrix,” “Harry Potter,” “Moulin Rouge” and, in the aforementioned orphanage sequences, “Oliver Twist.”
Those various, ahem, “homages” turn Pan into a case study in unimaginative amalgamation. Yet just as dreadful as its lack of originality is the film’s ugliness. Wright coats his action in great gobs of primary color and shining light, with gunfire resulting in explosions of red and blue smoke, and indigenous queen Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) boasting a rectangular headdress comprised of rainbow-hued tassels. It’s akin to being trapped in a CG-enhanced bowl of Lucky Charms, and it only gets more unpleasant once Peter exhibits the power of flight. That heretofore-unknown ability allows him to escape Blackbeard’s clutches and, with the aid of fellow captive—and, wink wink, unlikely comrade—James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), seek refuge with a native tribe that believes he’s the “chosen one” prophesied to kill Blackbeard and restore peace and harmony to Neverland. From there, his saga entails rites of passage, much bickering between the material’s de facto Han Solo (Hook) and Leia (Tiger Lily), and a nearly endless barrage of running, jumping, swinging, sliding, soaring, plummeting, dangling, punching, kicking, flipping, tumbling, bouncing, and screaming, Screaming, SCREAMING.
“Pan” is a cacophonous assault on the senses, all computerized cinematographic mayhem and deafening noise, and its hurried pace extinguishes any genuine character development, so that newcomer Levi Miller’s Peter comes across as an alternately stout and whiny mamma’s boy, Mara’s Tiger Lily proves a featureless warrior babe (albeit one required to make coy smiles at Hook), and Hedlund’s Hook is a blustery rogue defined by the actor’s aggravating over-enunciation of every single line of dialogue. With John Powell’s score blaring incessantly, and 3D effects augmenting the scenery’s artificiality—and the actors’ physical detachment from their fantastical surroundings—the film strikes one discordant note after another along the way to a finale in which Blackbeard attempts to enact a fairy holocaust, and Wright somehow manages to botch the climactic moment when Peter finally masters flying. A clumsy hodgepodge of hackneyed parts, it’s an extravagant misfire aptly summed up by its own early image of a zero-gravity chicken laying an egg that flies right at the viewer’s face. [D]