“Pan” commits no cardinal sins. It never breaks its contract with the audience. It does something worse than betray us: it fails to make us feel stuff.
One night during World War II, inexplicably evil English nuns sell orphans to magic pirates who take said orphans to Neverland where Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, “X-Men”) forces them to mine pixie dust to help him maintain his eternal life. Hook (Garrett Hedlund, “Friday Night Lights”) is a fellow miner here, and Peter (Levi Miller, in his first feature film), revealing that he can fly and is therefore the “Chosen One,” escapes the mines with Hook’s help. Peter seeks his mother and the lost Fairy City in a bumbling quest to simultaneously protect the fairies, discover who he is, believe in himself and find his long-lost mother. The party soon finds one more member, Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) among the natives of Neverland. She, our ass-kicking beauty, exposits on Peter’s plot armor and tops off the movie’s ambient sense of urgency, but it’s too little too late. We don’t care for this Neverland, we don’t care for Peter and, as Mr. Smee (Adeel Akhtar, “Four Lions”) exclaims in an ironic moment of clarity, “nobody cares about (Peter’s) mother!”
The joy of the Peter Pan story hinges on the wonder of a Neverland that floats about with childish naiveté. Director Joe Wright’s (“Atonement”) Neverland is fantastical only as an excuse to cut corners on world-building. The wholesomeness of its stunning visuals is so overtaxed with uninspired dramatic nonsense that the audience yearns for an out, for something mad or ugly to shake us out of our stupor. There’s no out. There’s no plot twist. The plot is marched forward like an invalid in a wheelbarrow by some cosmic wind of inevitability. There’s no emotional initiative and only the barest of sequential logic.
A magical universe like that of “Pan” depends on narrative logic to constrain its spontaneity. Without a sense of context and limitation, the existence of magic is boringly storybreaking. Why worry about the vicious crocodiles in the river if your ship can fly through the air? If the fairies are so powerful, why do they need the help of a 12-year-old boy at all? Too many questions in “Pan” can be answered only by “magic.” Magic quickly becomes a narrative beast-of-burden, and for every element of heavy-lifting that magic does for the story, it robs the story’s emotional logic of an opportunity to lure the audience into its groove.
Jackman does wonderfully, fulfilling expectation. A Neverland villain must be evil and ridiculous in equal measure, and Jackman wrangles this formula with cartoonish intensity. If the whole movie had committed to Jackman’s silliness, it would have hit a higher mark.
In his opening scene, Jackman conducts the orphan slaves of Neverland in a roaring rendition of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and the weirdness of this directorial choice is immediately smoothed over by the deliberate oddity of Jackman’s persona. Hedlund uses a more devil-may-care formula for (soon-to-be-Captain) Hook’s swagger. Hedlund is less weird and interesting than Jackman, but passably successful. The rest of the formulaic cut-outs are questionable at best. Blackbeard’s meathead minion is a beefy black guy; Smee, the take-what-he-can-get traitor, is strongly coded as Jewish; Neverland’s native Kung-Fu master is a stringy Asian guy, and Mara’s native princess, though shiningly acted, is as pale as the freshly-driven snow. Warner Bros casted this movie to fit a mold, and we would rather have seen that mold broken into a million pieces.
For all the molds “Pan” fills, it fails to fill the only hollow that really matters, its raison d’être. We eschew Aesop Fable movies for taking the easy choice, railroading a fantasy’s moral universe, but children’s tales need dense moral substance or they drift apart at the seams. “Pan” floats on from start to finish, unwilling or unable to choose a convincing core value, and there’s no wind in its sails to pull it back to course.