Taking liberties with source material and beginning in the Blitz as the bombs fall over London, Peter Pan is under the watchful eyes of the nasty nuns at the Lambeth Home for Boys. Dropped there as a baby 12 years earlier by his mother, he dreams of the day she will return to collect him. While the nuns hoard the limited wartime rations and treat the boys like slaves, escape comes one night in the form of pirates bursting through the roof of the orphanage.
Spirited away to Neverland on a flying pirate ship, Peter finds himself imprisoned in the mines where the most feared pirate of all, Hugh Jackman's Captain Blackbeard rules over his kidnapped victims. While mining for fairy dust which has rejuvenation properties for those who inhale it, Peter hooks up with James Hook and his mate Smee, finds out he is the subject of a prophecy and plots an escape to search for his beloved missing mother.
Pan fans (or just anyone who’s ever been to a pantomime) will recognise the character names and Peter’s search takes him across the familiar world of Neverland, meeting the pirate-fighting natives including fearless Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and on to find mermaids, crocodiles and fairies. Blackbeard is of course always in hot pursuit with nice guy Hugh Jackman shouting and threatening and trying his very best to be menacing. Meanwhile, Wright shoehorns in some foreshadowing to the J. M. Barrie story we know and love with Hook being intimidated by a crocodile and Peter getting a brief moment to meet Tinkerbell.
But this is Peter's story and newcomer Levi Miller just about manages to avoid making this look like a big budget stage school production. That's made harder because he's surrounded by over acting, with both Jackman throwing it all out there from beneath an outrageous costume and Garrett Hedlund also overdoing the roguish charm of his James Hook. What Hedlund and Jason Fuchs’ script fails to do is convincingly hint at the darkness to come in Hook's story. If Pan gets a sequel, the arc of Hook's fall to the dark side will be the real draw, but don’t expect much of a hint of the nasty pirate here.
For while there is some menace, and younger children might find the odd moment scary, this is mostly pantomime stuff, just with added lashings of CGI. Typically for a Joe Wright film, Pan looks lovely, particularly when bringing storytelling to life. One early sequence uses stars to create character imagery, another uses a ‘memory tree’ to carve out a narrative in wood, and then later water is used to invoke a sort-of flashback to a pivotal moment in Peter's family history. These moments are exquisite, so it's a shame that the action sequences, including a pirate ship dogfight with spitfires over London and the climactic Blackbeard showdown with Peter are often a bit of a mess of overused CGI.
In contrast, the production design of the native's territory is wonderful and the multi-coloured costumes of the tribes people will remind older audiences of what has made Peter Pan and Neverland so enduring all these years. The racist undertones of any previous Peter Pan stories are brushed aside by casting the ‘savage’ natives as a multi-cultural bunch of jungle dwellers.
Pan manages to tread on the toes of its source material, at the same time as heading into previously unexplored prequel territory only hinted at by J. M. Barrie. It all feels like a set-up for a sequel (where we might get to the good stuff) and if that manages to get Hook’s story right, it could be a hell of a lot better than this lively, but flawed flight through Neverland.
PAN / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: JOE WRIGHT / SCREENPLAY: JASON FUCHS / STARRING: HUGH JACKMAN, LEVI MILLER, JIMMY VEE, AMANDA SEYFRIED, ROONEY MARA / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER 16TH
Expected Rating: 7 out of 10