Peter Pan is a timeless story that’ll last forever, which is only appropriate since the title character never grows up. Being an ageless tale, it makes sense that we’ve seen so many different incarnations over the years. The Disney animated classic is probably the most well known and therefore the most universally beloved. Of course many millennials still stand by Steven Spielberg’s Hook as the absolute best version. The 2003 live-action adaptation, which remained more faithful to J. M. Barrie’s original source material, has also developed a strong following. A few minutes into Joe Wright’s Pan, you might think you’re in store for one of the most magical interpretations of this immortal character. Instead, it ends up being one of the most clichéd and forgettable.
The film certainly starts off with a promising step-up. This isn’t a traditional Peter Pan adventure with the Darling children and lost boys. Rather, Pan is a prequel that delves into where our hero came from and how he first took flight to Neverland. While we’ve seen this done in Once Upon a Time and of course Hook, it’s still a fairly original idea. Where they go with this idea is anything but original, though.
Turns out that Peter’s parents were noble warriors and he is the chosen one. A prophecy says he’ll confront the dreaded Blackbeard, played by a joyously hammy Hugh Jackman, who is mining for pixie dust. It’s Peter’s fate to take back the land and liberate the natives. So basically this supposedly “original” interpretation its just Avatar meets Harry Potter.
In addition to the highest-grossing movie of all time and the second highest-grossing movie franchise of all time, Pan steals from a number of other recent fantasy flicks and young adult novels. Between Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Oz the Great and Powerful, did we really need another reimagining of a classic story with a prophecy and chosen one? It’s really starting to get old. Sure, these elements can work when the audience is given one-of-a-kind characters to follow. Pan on the other hand, is simply full of stock archetypes.
Let’s take Garrett Hedlund as James Hook for example. Instead of being Peter’s sworn enemy from the get go, Hook starts off as his reluctant ally and eventual friend. That’s a potentially fascinating way to approach this famous dynamic. The first problem, however, is that Hook is essentially a Harrison Ford wannabe. Seriously, the character is just Han Solo in Neverland. Both are scoundrels that pilot a ship, come in at the last second to save the day, and even have a flirtation with a princess. Princess Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara) to be precise.
To give Hedlund credit, he does create a likable anti-hero with plenty of sly charm. He’d be a perfect casting choice to play young Han Solo in the prequel Disney’s developing. In a Peter Pan movie, though, a character like this just feels out of place and distracting. The only difference between Hook and Han is that Han’s destined to be a hero and Hook is destined to turn to the dark side one day.
Speaking of which, the film doesn’t really delve too deep into the impending rivalry Peter and Hook will inevitably share. The poorly paced screenplay has numerous other subplots, themes, and iconic side characters that are glanced over. This feels less like a standalone Peter Pan story and more like the first chapter in what the studio hopes will become a series. That’s another drawback with fantasy movies nowadays. Why do they all have to be drawn-out, epic sagas? Why can’t they just be fun little self-contained adventures? That’s what Peter Pan initially was anyway. There’s no need to turn J. M. Barrie’s work into something it’s not.
It’s a shame there’s so much that doesn’t work in Pan because there’s actually a lot to admire otherwise. Young Levi Miller portrays a lively Peter Pan, who’s driven to find his long lost mother. Wright has made a well-crafted movie with Oscar-worthy art direction, costumes, and makeup. Sometimes the CGI is overblown and a couple creatures come off as pretty cheesy. For the most part, however, the look of the film feels like the Neverland we know and love while also being unique. Alas, the same can’t be said about the story.