Based on the fundamental nature of its existence, there’s no reason to explain magic. There’s no reason to explain why Pinocchio comes to life. There’s no need to specify the power of Aladdin’s Genie. There’s no reason to verify why Peter Pan can fly, which comes to the core problem with Joe Wright’s Pan. Everything needs to be explained rather than felt, it never figures out what makes Neverland special. Though it captures some wonderful moments of awe, it doesn’t find its flight.
Rather than revisit the adventures of Wendy and her brothers, John and Michael, Pan takes the time to tell Peter’s origin and his introduction to Neverland. For sometimes, to truly understand how things end, we must first know how they began — as we’re told by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), our narrator and Peter’s mother who drops our newborn protagonist on the doorstep of the Lambeth Home for Boys one dark London night. An orphanage run by a strict order of nuns, the place is where Peter (Levi Miller) calls his home for the next 12 years — with only one friend in fellow adventure-seeker orphan Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) to keep his spirits high. There are few challenges beyond the capabilities of their imagination, but Peter’s fear of heights hold them to the ground. Only when a high-flying gang of pirates steals him from his bed in the middle of the night must he confront his nerves head-on.
Whisked away to a star in the sky, he’s transported to Neverland — a magic land beyond his comprehension. He then meets the vicious Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who maliciously sends him through the mountains to dig for fairy dust — the source of eternal youth for the pirate. In there, he comes across an illusive loner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), who takes little interest in making the child’s acquaintance, until he discovers his potential. When pushed to his death, it’s apparent Peter’s far from any ordinary child as he flies away from his fate. Understanding his potential, Hook takes Peter under his wing, steals Blackbeard’s ship and sails out to freedom. But there’s a problem: Peter doesn’t know how to channel his flying on his own. As they crash down to the forest, they make the company of Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), only to discover her tribe of Indians understands Peter’s prophecy possibly more than he ever could.
Wright’s fine visual aesthetics never fail him. He captures the visual enchantment of Neverland with a distinct vision that’s entirely unique to J.M. Barrie’s creation. His art direction is impeccable as always, the costume designs are a marvel to watch, but what good do they serve when the characters never bounce off into flight? There’s rarely any genuine childlike wonder. Every decision comes across as dedicated to a fault. It lacks the spontaneous amazement we’ve come to expect from this world. It feels a little too stiff, even a little too damper. It doesn’t invite the joy of Neverland as much as it should.
Perhaps we know too much to invest ourselves. Prequels have a harder time making their stories seem fresh, for obvious reasons. It’s hard to get enticed when we know what’s going to happen. Pan attempts to take some liberties with the narrative as a result, to baffling results. Pirates sing renditions of “Smell Like Teen Spirit” or “Blitzkrieg Bop,” even when they’ve established the story takes place around WWII. Fairy dust isn’t known to make people fly, yet there’s never an explanation for how the ships float. Little decisions like these often confuse more than they inspire. What make it weird isn’t why these decisions were made necessarily, but rather why they instead take the time to explain everything else. Who cares about how Hook came to find a ship? What does it matter? Did Peter need to become dyslexic? Why bother to make Peter and Hook become friends? What good comes by having them bond?
It all comes down to answers we didn’t need, for questions we never asked. It stands to show you just how little sense comes from theories to magical worlds. It’s more impacting to make us fall in love with the characters again than simply respect the admiration to let us know about their origins. It brings us back to what makes us care about these characters in the first place: the mystery behind their existence. Neverland entices us because we don’t know everything about this strange land, these strange people living inside. Exploring becomes part of the fun. Pan, however, never gives us time to do this. It lets us appreciate the beauty, but doesn’t have us appreciate its full value of its worth.
Everyone on board commits as well as they can, though they can’t make it work in its entirety. Jackman gives a ferocious performance, commanding his presence in more versatile ways than ever. With his pale complication, gaudier figure, piercing black eyes and hideous wig, he looks like something from an Aardman production rather than what we’ve come to expect from the actor, and he lives up the animated standards plenty. Adeel Akhtar lives up the frigid energy of Mr. Smiegel, a.k.a. Mr. Smee, Hook’s left-hand man. Nonso Anozie nearly steals the show, meanwhile, as Bishop, Blackbeard’s boisterous right-hand man. Mara tries what she can, but seems entirely miscast beyond the racial concerns. Additionally, Miller gives his heart to the titular role, but he never captures the thrill in Peter’s eyes.
Hedlund, however, completely lives up the challenge, giving his most rousing and delightful performance to date. He completely makes it his own, while still respecting past iterations and making sure to let everyone around him get their moment to shine. It makes you wonder why he wasn’t the main attraction here, as the origins behind Hook would seem far more interesting than Pan’s — especially if they started out as comrades. He bursts through with a complete enthusiasm and a good morality for fun, and he makes you want to take interest in this new iteration for the character. It comes down to the principle of the character, though, and there’s only so much he can do with what’s he’s given.
Pan does a noble job to have this fairytale world come to life Neverland never becomes a character, though. It merely serves as a gorgeous display and backdrop for our characters, most of whom we didn’t get to love as much as we did or, if we didn’t know them already, we never really get the chance here. Beyond this, there’s no drive inside its engine. It runs on the potential to make something grandeur, but it feels as though it’s picking at straws — even from the beginning. It doesn’t rise far from the ground, primarily because it doesn’t seem to think it can. “I don’t believe in bedtime stories,” Peter says at one point, and based on what we’re given this time, we don’t either here. Though it takes the star north, it fails to make it out until morning. That’s why it doesn’t fly.