Have you ever wondered where the pixie dust in Peter Pan came from, or what its scientific name is? Just how the institutional hierarchies of fairies, native tribes and lost boys break down? How the pirate infrastructure Captain Hook would later commandeer was set up? Where Hook came from, or Smee, for that matter? It’s hard to imagine anyone being so curious, more than 100 years after J. M. Barrie’s play debuted, but nevertheless, Pan is here—a big-budget, garish mess of a blockbuster that answers questions about the Peter Pan universe nobody asked.
In Pan, Peter (Levi Miller) first visits Neverland after he’s spirited away by orphan-snatching pirates during World War II (never mind that Barrie’s original story was set at the turn of the century). In this timeline, the kingdom is governed by the dread pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), who steals children to mine pixie dust (or “pixum”) to grant him eternal youth, while he fights an endless war with Neverland’s native peoples, led by Tiger Lily (played by the decidedly white Rooney Mara). Peter meets the dashing young James Hook (Garrett Hedlund) and inspires a rebellion, but Pan’s plot quickly disintegrates as the director Joe Wright stages one bombastic set-piece after another with very little grasp on the story he’s trying to tell.
The film’s problems certainly begin with its script (by Jason Fuchs, whose only other major writing credit thus far is the fourth Ice Age movie): Pan falls into every prequel pitfall possible. It saddles Peter Pan, the archetypal boy who could never grow up, with a plodding Harry Potter-esque origin story in which he’s the chosen one, some mythic offspring of a fairy prince and a native warrior who bears a magical pan-flute totem and thus has the ability to fly. It invents a new villain—Blackbeard—but then spends endless time on exposition about his tragic past and motivations that would require a whole other prequel to get into.
If Pan’s screenplay is a lesson in anything, it’s that most beloved stories don’t require a whole cinematic universe to go along with them. Captain Hook is Peter Pan’s enemy because he cut his hand off—simple. Do we really need a whole movie where they’re allies, but keep making winking references to their future enmity for the audience’s sake? The film uselessly embellishes the stories imagined by Barrie more than 100 years ago and cemented by Walt Disney: This time the pirate ships can fly, model/actress Cara Delevingne plays all three sultry mermaids, and Tiger Lily’s people are rendered as a colorful, multi-ethnic tribe with no distinguishing features who explode into colorful dust when killed.
Wright is an unabashedly visual director who’s worked wonders with much lower-budget projects in the past. He made his Hollywood entry with his rather sumptuous take on Pride & Prejudice, then stuffed his follow-up, Atonement, with long tracking shots to take in the epic sweep of the evacuation of Dunkirk. In his 2012 adaptation of Anna Karenina, made for less than a third of Pan’s $150 million budget, he pulled the dazzling trick of pitching the Russian court as a giant stage show, with intrigue happening behind the scenes; when Levin journeyed to the countryside, the stage was suddenly blasted open into widescreen splendor, a brilliant trick of cinema.
With Pan, he has all the money in the world and too many ideas of what to do with it. Pirate ships careen and loop-de-loop in the air, shooting cannons at the Luftwaffe, blasting by giant, inexplicable spheres of water containing fish and crocodiles. Every character is costumed to the nines, and Blackbeard is given one bombastic speech after another (the film also infuriatingly copies Moulin Rouge’s idea of having a horde singing incongruously along to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). But the heavy use of green-screen in every epic setting is too easily detected, and a final showdown in the kingdom of the fairies, a land of irregular crystalline structures, is disappointingly flat.
It doesn’t help that every actor involved seems completely lost at sea. Mara, perhaps embarrassed at playing a Native American princess clad in a midriff-baring rainbow outfit, barely registers onscreen, dimly smiling at Captain Hook’s lame efforts to flirt with her. Hedlund barks lines in the most exaggerated accent imaginable, doing a Douglas Fairbanks routine by way of Neptune, a performance so unconvincing I mistakenly assumed Hedlund had to be from another country (he is, in fact, Minnesotan). Jackman gives a more comfortably bad turn, the kind of over-the-top vaudeville routine he can do in his sleep. And as Peter, Levi Miller delivers all his lines as if he’s starring in a toy commercial.
Pan was intended as the first salvo in a new series (Pan 2 is already marked on IMDb as being in development, and would probably have dealt with the origins of Hook’s villainy), but that will likely change if its low box-office predictions hold. Instead, let it stand as a totem of Hollywood’s epic franchise folly, a reminder that just because audiences enjoy a classic media property doesn’t mean they need a CGI-laden cinematic universe about it. We can only hope that its failure will throw producers off that scent—at least until the next abominable idea.