The worst thing to come out of the massive success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and I say this as someone who's very much a fan) is the idea of movies as episodic stories whose purpose is to set up worlds that can later be mined for interconnected prequels, sequels, spin-offs, and crossovers. It's a smart idea -- after all, comic books have been doing this sort of thing for decades, so it only makes sense that the movies based on those comic books would follow suit.
The problem comes when franchise-hungry studios -- always eager to learn the wrong lesson from their rivals' box office successes -- start applying the Marvel template to properties that don't need it. Aside from movie universes for Marvel and DC superheroes, the new "Star Wars" films will set up a separate line of spin-off films, and there are currently plans for film series involving Universal Monsters and even one centered around 90's Nickelodeon cartoon characters.
"Pan" is the latest attempt to kick start such a franchise, creating a new origin story for J.M. Barrie's beloved childhood figure, Peter Pan. There was already a "Pan II" in the works, but after this film's disastrous reception, it may never get off the ground.
Director Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice") and writer Jason Fuchs ("Ice Age: Continental Drift") begin by transplanting Barrie's turn of the century story to WWII-era London, where we find Peter living in a seedy orphanage overseen by an ogre of a nun. (Why is it that it's never the kindly nuns who run orphanages in these types of stories?) This new setting doesn't appear to serve any purpose aside from allowing the filmmakers to later stage an aerial dogfight between flying pirate ships and the Royal Air Force.
Peter dreams of the day his mother (Amanda Seyfried) will return for him, but the nuns have made some sort of financial arrangement with a band of Neverland pirates, who pay the orphanage for the ability steal off with a few boys each night, dropping down from the ceiling on bungee cords and transporting them to Neverland. There, they're used by Blackbeard the Pirate (Hugh Jackman) as slave labor to work in his mines, digging for magical fairy dust (here given the pseudo-science-y name of unobtainium, er, I mean pixum). The substance grants Blackbeard immortality, but with his mines running dry, he needs to take over more land from Neverland's natives. The native people are depicted as a mishmash of various tribal cultures, led by princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). There was a significant backlash after the casting announcement naming the decidedly white Mara as Tiger Lily, but the whitewashing of her character is only one of many, many problems with "Pan."
Peter teams up with the dashing James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) to help defend the natives, and again, there doesn't seem to be much reason to depict Pan and Hook as friends, other than to make winking references to their future as mortal enemies. Along the way, Peter learns of an ancient prophecy about "The Pan," a being of fairy and native lineage who will be the one to save Neverland.
Of all the poor creative decisions made in "Pan," we've now come to the laziest. Turning the story of Peter Pan into yet another Chosen One, hero's journey tale -- as though that's the only fantasy story movies call tell anymore -- demonstrates a frustrating lack of imagination from the filmmakers. Even incidental bits of weirdness are lifted from better sources, like having toiling miners sing anachronistic songs "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Blitzkrieg Bop" a la "Moulin Rouge."
Levi Miller makes for a bland Peter Pan, missing the puckish charm that defines the character. But I can't fault the young actor too much, seeing as how his older, more experienced co-stars fare just as badly, or worse. Mara looks bored throughout, while Garrett Hedlund adopts a distractingly exaggerated accent. I don't know whether to blame Wright or the actor for the voice, but whoever's decision it was, it's a terrible one. I suppose Jackman fares best, but that's not saying much. To say his performance is scenery-chewing is an understatement, confusing yelling really loud with being menacing. For a character described as "the original nightmare," his Blackbeard never really feels like much of a threat.
While largely a mess, there are a few aspects of the film to recommend: costumes and production design are impeccable, appearing to have sprung to life from the pages of Victorian picture books. It's no surprise to learn that the production design is from Aline Bonetto, who gave us the picturesque world of "Amelie." On its own, John Powell's score may be lovely, but played nonstop through every moment of the movie, it comes across as noisy and overblown as everything else. Every aspect of the film feels desperate to spark our imagination, but it's missing any sense of magic.