“You’re a crook, Capt’n Hook!” So cried a young Michael Bluth in the surreal comedy TV series Arrested Development, a flashback to inform the adult Michael’s ludicrous fake job title of Pirate Lawyer. I mention it because it’s no less pantomime than Joe Wright’s whimsical Peter Pan prequel, the simply, dully, fatally titled Pan. Hugh Jackman has the tight wig and the dramatic white make-up of a pantomime dame, and indulges in camp villainy from the moment he steps out into the sub-Mad Max canyon that is his mining kingdom to the absurd soundtrack of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, performed by the assembled enslaved masses.
The film has already been running for a while, but this – also Peter’s arrival in the otherworldly universe of Neverland – is perhaps the tipping point: the moment where you know whether you’re into this vision or not. Pan is like a collection of modern mainstream cinema’s grossest tendencies wrapped in a CGI bow, and the longer the miners cheerlessly wail, the harder it becomes to accept this approach as irony. Particularly when the other tendencies are less flamboyant and more borderline offensive, from the tired white saviour narrative to the mishmash of ethnicities that make up Tigerlily’s native tribe. Rooney Mara’s unfortunate casting at the helm of this group has already attracted considerable derision, and it’s hardly unwarranted when her sidekicks are shafted with the obvious clichés of their ethnic backgrounds.
More often than not, though, Pan is quite simply quite unremarkable; while Levi Miller, playing Peter as a rebellious, cheeky orphan with a dodgy cockney accent but an appealing, instinctive intelligence, is perhaps (along with Kathy Burke’s monstrous Mother Superior) the saving grace, the film largely abandons him as an active character once he’s been transported to Neverland, stuck at the bottom of the frame next to tall adults who are convinced their saviour has come at last. As this is an origin story, Peter has to learn how to fly, which proves as convincing as Christopher Reeve’s 1970s Superman, only with more sparkling pixie dust in the background as a distraction.
Effects like this float around for the sake of spending money on spectacle. The story is moved up to World War II solely to accommodate a bewildering sequence where fighter jet planes attempt to shoot down the flying pirate ship. Mystifying bubbles containing… something are suspended in midair for the arrival in Neverland. These distract, momentarily, from the fundamentally misguided focus of the story, which shoves classic villain Hook (Garrett Hedlund) sideways into a caddish Indiana Jones love interest for the aloof Tigerlily, instead pulling in Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard as a man hooked on pixie dust to prevent him from turning into an unmasked Darth Vader, his vanity more fragile than Snow White’s stepmother’s.
Awkward jokes about Peter and Hook’s alliance hang in the air, acknowledging the more interesting untold story about their rivalry that was clearly meant to be a sequel. There won’t be one; hardly anyone in the US bought into the colour bomb exploded over this miserablist fiction, and Pan will end up the butt of reviewer jokes, Joe Wright’s childish folly, and, we hope, the latest death knell of the fairy tale reinvented.
Pan is in cinemas now.