People fall down an awful lot in Joe Wright’s prequel to J. M. Barrie’s 1904 stage classic “Peter Pan.” Young and old fall from rooftops, from ceilings, from bridges, from cliffs, from planks on pirate ships—from almost every imaginable precipice. And they usually wind up unharmed but flat on their faces. It’s an apt motif for the movie, which falls flat on its face, too. Raucous, bloated with special effects and thoroughly lacking in charm, “Pan” is the rare family movie that should appeal to no group along the age spectrum.
The misbegotten script by Jason Fuchs begins with the infant Peter being abandoned on the stoop of a London orphanage where he’s raised, alongside other mistreated ragamuffins, by a group of scowling sisters headed by cruel, avaricious Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke). It’s the height of the Nazi Blitz during World War II, and she’s not only stealing the kids’ rations but selling the children off to pirates from Neverland, who come to grab them from their cots via bungee cords dropped from their flying ships (which are occasionally attacked by RAF fighters).
Once taken to Neverland, the youngsters find themselves added to the huge crowds of slaves laboring as miners for Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who has them working the hillsides with axes and shovels searching for pixum (aka pixie dust)—which in this case doesn’t endow the user with the ability to fly but instead serves as a sort of rocky fountain of youth, which aged Blackbeard needs desperately. As much of a hellion as he was back with his pal Nibs (Lewis MacDougal) at the orphanage, Peter quickly falls afoul of Blackbeard and is sentenced to walk the plank, which in this case is installed over a huge cliff. But he manages to fly at the last moment, escaping death—which to Blackbeard identifies him as “the chosen one,” the offspring of a fairy prince and a human woman who’s fated to destroy him. Peter’s thrown in the clink but rescued by James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), a cynical rascal who sees the boy as his key to freedom.
Absconding with one of Blackbeard’s flying ships, the heroes make their way into the forest, where they’re taken prisoner by the Neverland tribe, among whose leaders is beautiful Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). There they undergo a series of tests that prove Peter’s destiny. Unfortunately Blackbeard soon arrives with his army, but by then Peter, Hook and Tiger Lily are on their way to the hidden fairy realm where Pan’s relatives await his arrival. The whole rigmarole concludes in a supposedly spectacular finale pitting Blackbeard’s hordes against heroes and fairies alike, with very athletic but equally predictable twists, turns and last-minute escapes.
“Pan” is filled with action, much of it of the CGI variety, but there’s barely a move that won’t remind you of some moment from a “Star Wars” or Indiana Jones movie where it had been done with greater elan. For all the energy expended on stunts and visual effects in the picture (including mermaids and some giant birds), the whole thing has an oddly joyless feel, which is encapsulated in large measure in Jackman’s performance as Blackbeard. He rants and bellows with all his might, even incongruously breaking into song on occasion (the tunes odd ones indeed)—while wearing some of the most unattractive pirate duds ever designed (Jacqueline Durran was the perpetrator). But he’s never able to convey the slightest sense of fun. Hedlund is equally over-the-top, but his shtick appears to lie in trying to channel Harrison Ford (or at least a sideshow-mirror version of him), down to the vocal inflections (which come across strangely disembodied, as though dubbed by somebody else). Mara, by contrast, is simply nondescript, and none of the other adult performers make much of an impression. There’s some small compensation in the performance of young Levi Miller, who makes a pleasantly natural, unforced Peter, but that’s small comfort.
That leaves the incessantly busy, colorful production design by Aline Bonetto, which—especially in 3D—is more likely to exhaust the eye than enchant it, and the cinematography of Seamus McGarvey, who achieves some striking images (of Blackbeard’s huge mines, for example), but overall can manage only workmanlike results amid the endless hubbub. Their craftsmanship isn’t to blame for the fact that for all its visual pizzazz, “Pan” remains an earthbound behemoth, which fails to lift off because it abandons the sense of childlike wonder that was the hallmark of Barrie’s creation, replacing it with a chain of modern action-movie tropes that weigh it down mercilessly.
This, of course, isn’t the only recent effort to imagine how a human lad became the mischievous boy who never grows up; writer-director Nick Willing used the same idea in his 2011 British mini-series “Neverland,” which was shown in this country on the SyFy Channel. It shared some of the conceits of “Pan”—though in terms of the timeframe it was closer to the original—but wasn’t very good, either. It’s probably the wiser course just to stick with Barrie’s story, with all its mystery—either in the Disney animated adaptation of it or in P.J. Hogan’s 2003 live-action one, which doesn’t soar but is in most respect a lively family entertainment. (It also had a more memorable Peter in Jeremy Sumpter.)
As for Wright’s movie, it simply goes wrong.