Orphan Peter (Miller) is kidnapped and whisked away to Neverland, where he teams up with James Hook (Hedlund) and warrior Tiger Lily (Mara) to save Neverland from Blackbeard (Jackman).
It is a well known part of Joe Wright’s biog that, as a child, he worked at his parents’ puppet theatre in Islington. This sense of play is all over Pan, his prequel to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that reimagines young Peter and Hook (he has no hook yet, it’s a fantastic coincidence) taking on Blackbeard for the future of Neverland. Like another Pan remix, Hook, it hits and misses, making you wonder if the better option would be to employ all this expertise, flair and sense of fun to a retelling of the tale that works.
Pretty much from frame one — Peter’s mother (yes, it’s Amanda Seyfried) abandons him on the doorstep of an orphanage — Pan teems with vision and creativity: kids cherry-picked from beds by bungee jumping pirates, flying galleons versus spitfires, bioluminescent forests, clouds of fish, a battle played out with colour-bombs (Rufio would be at home here), beautifully animated backstories (bravo Andrew Huang) and unfeasibly otherworldly mermaids (all Cara Delevingne) rescuing our heroes from leaping crocs. If you love cinematic craft and daring, this has it in spades.
But for all the razzle-dazzle, it’s in the dramatic meat where the film falters. The bones of Jason Fuchs’ story — a boy’s search for his mother — are touching, but the film never really catches the heart. Early scenes in an orphanage, all cockernee scamps and Kathy Burke as a matron with a fuck-off wimple, feel too ‘Kids movie 101’. Miller gets better as he goes along, Hedlund channels Han Solo’s reluctant heroism but adds little else and Mara (sporting Toyah eye make-up circa 1981) makes for a feisty feminist Tiger Lily. Jackman, leading the Lost Boys in Nirvana and Ramones singalongs, swaggers as Blackbeard without ever making him a truly memorable villain.
Perhaps the most compelling scene in the picture is the first meeting of Peter and Blackbeard, an odd encounter charged with menace and melancholy. “Childhood ain’t so jolly,” Blackbeard tells him, “it’s frightening.” Wright’s film isn’t afraid to hint at the blackness in Barrie — Blackbeard’s rejuvenation malarkey is plain weird — but could have gone further. Visually, Pan might be an awfully big adventure; just a shame it’s not emotionally.
In many ways, Pan feels like a kids’ film made by a big kid. It has fantastic flights of fun and imagination but doesn’t deliver on the soul-stirring oomph and finesse to let it soar.