There’s a reason author J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has stood the test of time, resulting in countless adaptations across all forms of media. It’s a universal story of childhood, loss of innocence, and the fear of growing up. But there have been so many different iterations of the Peter Pan story already, what could director Joe Wright possibly bring to the table in Pan that hasn’t already been said? Well not much, but it turns out that’s not really an issue. Reframed as an origin story twist on Barrie’s tale, Pan is a delightful, silly, sometimes dizzying adventure that grabs a hold of the child in all of us and pulls us along for a wonderfully strange, ultimately endearing ride.
After a brief prologue in which we see young Peter’s mother (Amanda Seyfried) drop him off at an orphanage, Pan opens in London during World War II with Peter (Levi Miller)—ever imaginative—making the most of his semi-imprisonment under the ever-watchful eye of an evil nun. While investigating the increasing disappearances of his fellow orphans, Peter finds himself snatched up by pirates and whisked away to Neverland. He discovers that orphans from across the globe have been recruited to work deep in the mines of Neverland, searching for Pixum (ie. fairy dust in rock form) on the orders of the flamboyant, nefarious Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who is sucking the resources of the once lush world dry.
In the mines, Peter crosses paths with James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a fellow mine worker who’s seemingly been doing forced labor for his entire life. But when Peter shows he can fly—which comes as a surprise to him—Hook sees his ticket out of the mines and Neverland altogether. The two form a pact, with Hook promising to help Peter find his mother, whom he now believes abandoned him to venture to Neverland, where she waits for his arrival. Their journey finds them crossing paths with a group of natives, headed up by the intriguing Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), as Blackbeard and his band of strange/creepy pirates are hot on their tails.
What makes Pan soar is the film’s unending charm. Wright seizes upon the playful, childlike nature of Peter at the beginning of the movie and never lets up, resulting in a constantly engaging and genuinely fun adventure, even if you can already guess where it’s going to end up. His vision for Neverland is expectedly whimsical, verging on surreal at times. If you’ve longed to see Hugh Jackman dressed as a pirate, leading a chorus of thousands of child laborers in a rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, this is the movie for you.
Speaking of Jackman, he’s suitably mad as the youth-obsessed Blackbeard. While the film is a bit too light on motivation and backstory, only really digging into the character towards the end of the film, Jackman gives the performance his utmost. There are shades of a bit more dimensionality that could have used some expansion, and interactions with Peter are frustratingly cut too short, but by and large he’s a serviceable baddie in what’s very much Peter’s story.
Newcomer Miller is solid as Peter, if a bit stilted at times. He shines most when working opposite Hedland, whose Hook is pitched just a shade too far into the cartoony, but is wonderfully engaging nonetheless. He and Miller have a strong rapport as Peter and Hook, and Jason Fuchs’ screenplay has fun hinting at their antagonistic relationship to come—though that’s not touched upon in the context of Pan.
But in a refreshingly surprising twist, this isn’t a two-hander. Instead, it’s a trifecta, with Wright crafting a terrific relationship dynamic between Peter, Hook, and Tiger Lily. Mara is the standout of the entire film in an assured, confident performance as the native princess. Though many cried foul at the controversial casting, Wright opts for a worldly approach to the entire ensemble, casting the “natives” with actors from all across the globe. The High Priest is Australian aborigine, their warrior is of Asian descent, and of course there’s Mara, who affects an English accent for the young woman. Tiger Lily is, refreshingly, not played as a damsel in distress nor as an odd outsider. Instead, she’s the moral compass of the picture, instilling Hook and Peter with values necessary for all three to complete their adventure in an honorable fashion.
Ever the visual stylist, Wright has plenty of fun working with the fantastical world of Neverland. The film is wonderfully lush, and the imagination of the picture is refreshing—the natives, for instance, explode into clouds of color when they’re killed. It’s a shame, however, that Wright leaves his trademark long takes behind, as one imagines he could’ve had a lot of fun utilizing the technique in such a rich world. But the 3D is surprisingly stunning, genuinely adding a layer of shading to the film that boosts the overall experience.
Make no mistake, this is a movie for kids, and Wright seems to know just how to pitch the tone so that it’s playful and fun enough for youngsters to find it constantly compelling, while refusing to delve into cheap gags or tricks. It’s more of a sophisticated family movie with a dash of silliness for good measure. Sure the prophetic “chosen one” story is something we’ve seen before, and a few of the twists to the Peter Pan myth are a little ridiculous, but every choice is made in the name of making an enjoyable, thrilling adventure, and on this level Wright succeeds beautifully.
We’ve seen the Peter Pan story countless times before, and while Pan doesn’t necessarily bring anything shockingly new to the table, it’s told in such confidently vivid and striking fashion that it feels somewhat refreshing. Buoyed by fascinating character dynamics, remarkable visuals, and a tone that’s in keeping with a young imaginative boy’s point of view, Pan is an adventure worth taking. If you’re up for the ride, that is.