My 14-year-old likes to watch the reality show “Cake Boss.” On this very entertaining show, Buddy Valastro, the owner of Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, erects complex and inventive confections that look amazing, but I’m never quite sure you’d want to eat them.
“Pan” is like Buddy’s most outrageous cake, it’s layered and layered with fondant, icing, colorful sprinkles, and artistic renderings, but underneath there’s little of substance worth devouring.
My familiarity with the J.M. Barrie characters is largely based on the various incarnations on screen. While Barrie’s 1904 play, “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” has been adapted many times into movies, I grew up watching the Disney animated feature. Steven Spielberg attempted to reinvent the Pan mythology with his “Hook” in 1991. That film traded heavily on Spielberg’s typically solid directing skills and unique casting that had the very much grown up Robin Williams playing Peter. And back in 2004, Barrie himself was characterized with Johnny Depp playing the writer and dramatist in the mighty fine “Finding Neverland.”
Needless the say, the characters and the story has endured for decades and with “Pan” the producers are hoping to start a new franchise. To launch things, writer Jason Fuchs (“Ice Age: Continental Drift” and the guy tapped to write the new “Wonder Woman” film) takes the Barrie characters and writes an origin story for them. “Pan” tells the story of how Peter becomes Pan in the time before Hook. Fuchs even transforms the time period starting things in England during WWII. Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan who is suffering in a boys home while England is brutally bombed. But when he is abducted by pirates employed by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and whisked away to Neverland, Peter’s life changes forever.
Once in Neverland, we meet the ruthless dictator Blackbeard, who makes an appearance singing, of all things, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” His ships magically hover above a mine where the boys he kidnaps search for pixie dust. It is a rough environment, but the miners do not seem to be too bothered and carry out their dirty duties gleefully singing and praising their bearded leader. Of course, there are a few that want out of the mine including the youthful, two-handed Hook (Garrett Hedlund), who immediately takes an interest in Peter. And when it is revealed that Peter just might be the one child that can topple Blackbeard, Hook mounts an escape in hopes of making it home – whereever home is.
To say that “Pan” is a bizarre film is an understatement. The narrative is positively peculiar with its bonkers setup and execution. And while Jackman is sturdy in the villain role and the young Miller is up to the challenge in playing Peter, the surrounding elements confuse and detract from anything good they have to offer. The wacky story-line confounds as Peter and Hook make their way from the mines and into a forrest or jungle, eventually encountering a tribe and the princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara). This “tribe” is an ungainly amalgamation of races as the actress Mara bears little racial connection to the others in her tribe. Just what and who they are is murky. Like so much in the film, it is a combination of contrasting styles that clash.
The momentum of the “Pan” tale is unrelenting as Blackbeard pursues Peter, Hook, and Tiger Lily toward an ultimate showdown. And the effects provide a bit of a coster ride but with hollow meaning. Admittedly, the kaleidoscope of constantly swirling images keeps the viewer somewhat entertained, but with little desire to engage with another helping of Pan and his continuing adventures. The effect is sort of akin to the modern amusement park rides at Universal Studios. This carnival ride style filmmaking just isn’t the way to kick-start a new film series.
Sadly, J.M. Barrie’s original ideas and characters may have finally met their end for a while at the movies. “Pan” effectively starts and ends any franchise hopes.