You’ll be somewhere around Neverland, in the middle of an empty theatre, when the drugs begin to take hold. At least, that’s what it feels like when you’re watching Pan. A gonzo work of unbridled and unwieldy imagination that’s easier to hazily recount than actually review, this latest trip through the world of J. M. Barrie eases you through a surreal fantasy adventure like a frog slow boiling in bong water. That this most garish of kids movie can’t be written off as a shared hallucination is a testament to the clarity of Pan’s indelible and baffling vision.
As both an origin story and the umpteenth re-envisioning of Peter Pan, Pan is defined by the gratuitousness of its own existence. Both director Joe Wright and screenwriter Jason Fuchs never come up with a compelling reason for this story to be told, despite opening narration promising you that it’s one we’ve never heard before. Absent the subtextual punch of a Maleficent, or the reverence of a Cinderella, Pan is a prequel designed like a messy math equation: X doesn’t mark treasure on the map, just pieces of established Neverland lore that need to be solved for.
Have many children wondered how Peter, exceptionally assayed here by young Levi Miller, got his surname? Did they lie awake at night, desperate to know how Captain Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and Mr. Smee (Adeel Akhtar) formed their partnership? And will they love the original Peter Pan more, knowing that the boy who could fly did so under the weight, and specifically because of a great prophecy proclaiming him the specialist of all special little boys? At least most fairy tale divinations leave a little wiggle room for interpretation; prequels, by their nature, can only juke expectations so much, before funnelling back to where things all began the first time they all began.
So if Pan is fated to be an unnecessary bookend to Barrie’s original story, thank goodness Wright decided to make the gaudiest, most memorably unrestrained bookend his production could muster. Things start off innocently enough, with Levi’s Peter living the hard-knock life of an orphan during the Battle of Britain. The austere beginnings are right in Wright’s wheelhouse, even as treasure-hoarding nuns and a booby-trapped orphanage sprinkle whimsy over the period pallor. When Peter is snatched up from the rafters by pirates specializing in wirework, and whisked away to Neverland by the villainous Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), the rapid transition into high-flying children’s fantasy is among the few ways Pan benefits from our foreknowledge.
Wright, more known for adapting adult material, is not out of his element when it comes to bedtime fables; Hanna, an action movie told as fairy tale, modernized the grim underpinnings of stories in which wolves dress up like grandma, and witches sometimes need to be thrown in the oven. Pan, conversely, is a love letter to the imagination and buoyancy of those same stories. Flying pirate ships, magical kingdoms, and 10-foot-tall skeletal ostriches are the stuff of dreams, and taken at face value here. Even at its most formally and logically incoherent, Pan remains cohesive, utilizing a Cirque du Soleil-inspired staging that foregrounds theatrical live performers and props against cheesy digital canvasses.
When watching a pair of creatively nightmarish flashback sequences, a finale that appears to take place inside a geode, or a freshly laid chicken egg float towards you in zero-G 3D, you get the sense that the word “No” wasn’t used very often during production. The vaudevillian heights the actors aspire towards are fit to match. Jackman, all bellows and bug eyes, constructs a performance that’s one of the few manmade objects visible from space. Hedlund’s constant mugging gives the younger Hook a dopey kind of appeal, and Rooney Mara –whose casting as Tiger Lily makes for its own bag of pixie dust as Pan tiptoes around cultural relics from Barrie’s era- steers against the mania around her with soft-spoken stoicism.
So why doesn’t Pan work? Its earnestness couldn’t be more outmoded, with knowingly hokey gags about future events being the closest things ever get to referential. It moves at a fast pace with occasional bursts of colour and wit, but so too does a fool in motley when pushed down a steep hill. This being a film so in love with (and at its most genuinely effective during) flights of fancy, perhaps Pan’s undoing is its weightlessness. Wright’s putting on a spectacle of stupefying proportions, one that’s always flashy and occasionally mesmerizing. But the arrangement wilts in the stolen shadow of a legacy it can’t justify becoming a part of. How can any movie fly if it doesn’t believe itself worthy of even existing?
Pan will be subject to mockery, a fair bit of it deserved, for its burlesque spirit and grotesquerie of excess that may best be described as “Deppian.” It’s destined to find an audience, of one kind or another. Children? Maybe. Lovers of kitsch, irony, and blockbuster snafus? Assuredly. And once it gets a home release, we can look forward to someone figuring out what album a muted Pan synchs up to, “Dark Side of the Rainbow” style. If George Miller can claim that the black-and-white version of Mad Max: Fury Road is the best one, maybe Wright would say the same of Pan: Silent Movie Edition?
Pan is a confounding bauble worthy of Neverland, a film with no reason to exist that will inspire obsessive rewatching to figure out how it came to be.