These days, everyone gets a gritty backstory: Robin Hood, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles … even Santa Claus is up for a dark reboot.
So it was probably inevitable that Peter Pan would become a wartime orphan, kidnapped and forced into slavery by a homicidal pirate. You know, fun for the whole family.
“Pan” does remain (barely) within its PG rating, with enough silly humor and computer-generated magic to remain entertaining in its grim setting.
Jason Fuchs’ script moves the action from the early 20th century to World War II London, where Peter (Levi Miller) has spent his life in a miserable, Dickensian institution. Children have been disappearing at night, and Peter joins their ranks when he’s spirited away by a flying pirate ship in the middle of a German air raid. The ensuing battle is great fun, especially in 3-D. In fact, it may be the only reason the setting was changed, as the war doesn’t figure in anywhere else.
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The boys’ destination in Neverland is a massive mine, overseen by none other than legendary pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). He’s looking for pixum, the material in fairy dust, and has ravaged Neverland in his quest. The fairies have all disappeared, and the island’s natives are waging a guerrilla war against the invaders.
Blackbeard soon realizes there’s something special about Peter (for starters, he can fly), and when the boy escapes with the help of Hook (Garrett Hedlund of “Tron: Legacy”) and Smee (Adeel Akhtar), the battle is on. The fugitives take shelter with Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and her tribe, and Peter learns the truth about his family’s connection to Neverland.
That’s the simplified version. “Pan” is like a story told by a 5-year-old, wandering randomly, then injecting bursts of colorful chaos whenever it looks like you might be getting bored. It can be tedious, but there’s something charming about it, too. Director Joe Wright, best known for glossy dramas like “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina,” has the technical skill to keep the madness somewhat under control.
Miller is a likable, unselfconscious kid, and we can hope that a sequel will allow him to lighten up a bit more. Mara gets stuck playing a generic warrior princess, emphasis on “generic.” The filmmakers are so desperate to undercut criticism of her casting (she is white, in a role traditionally meant for a Native American), that they make all the natives a jumble of every indigenous culture on earth. She could be a Pict for all it matters.
Hedlund’s Hook is a handsome Indiana Jones type, complete with a trademark hat, but the Minnesota-born actor has an odd tendency to over-enunciate his dialogue. It was surprising to learn that he wasn’t British or Australian, trying to emulate an American accent (he sounds like Agent Smith from “The Matrix”).
Presumably, this bombast will work better when Hook becomes the bad guy in sequels and Hedlund can devour the set with impunity. In “Pan,” that task falls to Jackman, who has the time of his life. Blackbeard is a ghoulish figure with a penchant for leading his followers in punk and grunge singalongs (a cleverly anachronistic touch). He’s campy and scary and makes you wish they gave out Oscars for roles like this.
Naturally, Wright and company seem poised to continue, adding this to Hollywood’s seemingly endless list of “reimagined” franchises. Next up? “Alvin Begins: The Untold Story of a Warrior Chipmunk.”
Just kidding. I hope.
Find more of freelancer Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
3-D or not 3-D?
The 3-D looks great, but it’s not essential. If you’re going to enjoy “Pan,” you’ll enjoy it either way.