The story of Peter Pan is easily one of the more popular children stories out there, and thus there being many adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s classic tale comes as a surprise to no one, but just how many of them are any good? I’m sure many of us consider Disney’s 1953 animated version to be one of the better adaptations, and it’s a personal favorite of mine, but I also love the 2003 version with Jeremy Sumpter as Peter and Jason Isaacs as Hook. Spielberg’s Hook has divided many people into groups ranging from “Totally hate this treacle crap” to “Robin Williams is a comic genius” (I lean somewhere towards the former), but today we are going to discuss one of the prequel Peter Pans.
Writing a prequel cannot be an easy task as you are basing your story on information the original author did not feel merited being included at all, so coming up with subject matter that is not only interesting but also doesn’t shit all over the original has got to be a little tricky. Today prequels have become just another way for a Hollywood, bereft of original ideas, to continue to crank out more “identifiable” products after they’ve run out of plots for sequels. Peter Pan itself has been subjected to several prequels. In 2011 the SyFy Network made a dreadful mini-series called Neverland, but back in 2004 Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson co-wrote an excellent book series “Peter Pan and the Starcatchers” that Disney is apparently going to adapt someday, but it’s Joe Wright’s Pan that we will be looking at today.
Right off the bat we are saddled with some completely unnecessary voice over as a ghostly narrator informs us, “I’m going to tell you a story about a boy who would never grow up. About the pirate who wished to kill him. About the island where fairies roamed, but this isn’t the story you have heard before because sometimes friends begin as enemies and enemies begin as friends. Sometimes to truly understand how things end we must first know how they begin.” Now in this movie we do learn where Peter came from, and that at one time he and James Hook were friends, but we never get even an inkling as to what could have happened that would someday lead Peter to chop of his friends hand and feed it to a crocodile. Did Joe Wright think he was going to get to make another film after this one? A sequel-prequel if you will. The fact that this movie was a box office bomb has ensured that this will most definitely not be happening, but what actually went wrong with this film?
The movie begins with a woman running through the streets of London, where we see her iron leap gates with such athleticism we must wonder if this is Agent Peggy Carter, but in truth she is the mother of our hero, and for some reason she drops her little bundle of joy off at The Sisters of Prudence Lambeth Home For Boys. That this place looks about on par with the workhouse that poor Oliver Twist was stuck in makes one wonder, “Were there ever any nice orphanages in London?” This particular establishment is run by the cruel Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke) who not only hordes all the rations that should be given to the children, but she is also secretly selling the boys off to pirates.
Peter (Levi Miller) is one of the typical child characters we find in these types of movies; he has a spunky nature, a caring heart, and who will buck authority to do the right thing. When Peter finds a letter written by his mother, declaring her love and assuring Peter they will meet again “in this world or another” he finally has proof that he wasn’t just tossed aside like unwanted garbage. But once again I ask, “If she loved him so much why did she choose the most despicable orphanage in London?” Did she just not have enough time to do any research at all and this dark and depressing building she came across was her only option? That it turns out that the nuns here are evil, and selling the boys to the very people she was trying to hide her son from, tells us that she is either the unluckiest person in the world or a colossal idiot. Regardless of her motivations her son is soon captured by this group of bungee jumping pirates.
So Peter and dozens of his orphan pals are hauled aboard “The Ranger” a flying pirate ship, which then has to evade a squadron of RAF fighter planes because this story takes place during WWII. Now earlier Peter and his best mate Nibs (Lewis MacDougall) had been growing suspicious of the fact that each morning a few boys would be found missing, so that implies that a three masted ship could sail through the skies of a very watchful London numerous times without being spotted, and that apparently this was the only time someone thought to alert the military. That we learn a squadron of spitfires are incapable of shooting down a flying pirate ship may explain why no one bothers to call this kind of thing in.
Eventually the ship zooms up into outer space, where 1940s aircraft cannot follow, and then plummets through multiple dimensions, until finally arriving at Neverland. It’s here where we are introduced to Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), the pirate king who is waging war on Neverland for its supply of fairy dust/Pixum. It was at this point I became slightly intrigued in the direction the film was now taking for as Peter and friends arrive they are treated to a rousing musical number, led by Blackbeard, of Nirvanas “Smells like Team Spirit.”
Was this film suddenly becoming a full on musical ala Moulin Rouge? Or would it be more in the vein of A Knight’s Tale where the use of anachronistic songs cleverly mirror the past world to the present one? Sadly neither was the case. Apparently after trying several pirate songs and sea shanties, that just weren’t jelling according to Hugh Jackman, director Joe Wright brought in Nirvana’s ‘Teen Spirit‘ and The Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop.’ It truly was an inspired choice, the scene is full of energy and pure unadulterated fun, and Hugh Jackman seemed to be having a blast doing it, but then we never get another moment like this again. It’s as if Joe Wright was teasing us with a film that we could have had but never get. From this point on we are treated to horrible acting, terrible production designs, some of the poorest CGI I’ve ever seen, and worst of all a ridiculous plot about Peter being the Chosen One.
Turns out there is this prophecy about a boy who could fly, and who would someday return to Neverland and kill Blackbeard. If the “Chosen One” isn’t the laziest trope in fiction it’s at least one of the lamest, and if I never see another one it will be too soon. When Blackbeard tosses Peter off a gangplank, to his presumed death, Blackbeard and company are stunned to see the boy fly, but upon discovering that this boy is the one prophesized to be his death what does Blackbeard do? Does he have his men fill the kid so full of lead that he sinks to the ground? Does he come after Peter with a cutlass to cut off his head? No, he has a heart to heart chat with him about the prophecy, and then locks him in a cell. I’m not one to Monday morning quarterback the decisions made by nefarious villains, but what the hell point is there in keeping this kid alive?
So Peter is locked up for safe keeping for some reason, but in the cell next to him is a fellow captive James Hook (Garrett Hedlund). You’d be hard pressed to find a more poorly written, and terribly acted character in the history of cinema than this film’s version of Captain Hook. Hedlund seems to be trying to capture some of the roguish charms of the Han Solo type, but he is just so god-awful that you keep praying for some killer croc to come rampaging onto the set to eat him. Every nuance and inflection in his performance veers from clunky to flat, with not one believable character moment in the film’s entire running time.
And why in the hell is he called James Hook in this movie? One can assume that the pirate James Hook was not born with that name; if he was it would make it the most prescient name ever, but more than likely he took that name after Peter Pan lopped it off an fed it to a crocodile. Sure if the writers called him James Neville, or some such normal name, most people in the audience wouldn’t have a clue that this dude would someday become Peter’s nemesis, but as it is there is nothing in this movie that hints of what his future entails anyway. So what was the bloody point? Was Joe Wright planning on this being a franchise and in the next movie something was going to happen that would turn roguish nice guy into a murdering pirate? Another interesting change, and by interesting I mean pointless, was in making James Hook a romantic partner to Tiger Lily. In the book she was more Peter’s age than Hook’s so this change exist solely so they could wedge a modern style love story into the tale of Peter Pan. Of course it wasn’t the age change that caused the controversy surrounding Tiger Lily but that of the casting of Caucasian Rooney Mara as the Indian Princess.
The Indians, as portrayed in Peter Pan productions in the past, have certainly not been the most racially sensitive depictions of Native Americans, but I will defend Joe Wright and Pan on this front because I don’t know what the fuck these people are supposed to be, but they certainly aren’t Native Americans. I thought the clownish Cirque du Soleil pirates were absurd looking but the natives of Neverland look as if Ziegfeld Folly dancers were eaten by a giant croc and then barfed up all over the Mermaid Lagoon. In the book they befriended Peter because he rescued Tiger Lily, but in this movie they have been at war with Blackbeard on behalf of the fairies…well that is when they’re not just hanging around waiting for the prophesized one to show up.
There is not one real moment in this movie, and it being a fantasy film is not an excuse, the characters are not believable, the plot makes little to no sense. Why the hell has Blackbeard kidnapped orphans from around the world to dig in a quarry for fairy dust? Since when does fairy dust come from the ground? By the time it is explained why Blackbeard needs fairy dust, and who Peter’s mom really is, you will have moved well beyond caring. And do you know what is almost worse than the acting and the script? That would be the special effects, which are only special in the Short Bus to School kind of special. Almost every inch of this film is green screened, and the CGI quality drifts between passable to downright dreadful. In a movie about a boy who can fly one would expect to see some money spent on the flying effects, but that is certainly not the case here. Wire work would be the traditional way to do flying sequences for this type of film, and in the 1978 Superman using that method you believed a man could fly, but here in 2015 we get a CGI double of Peter Pan that looks worse than a cut scene from a PS2 video game.
It is no shock that this movie tanked at the box office, it took one of the most beloved children’s tales and spackled over it with a nonsensical script and populated it with unlikable characters. The only person who kind of escapes this film relatively unscathed is Hugh Jackman who does seem to be having a lot of fun with the part, but his Blackbeard character would have been better served if he had his own film, possibly a musical, and not in this cinematic turkey. As mentioned the questions brought forth by the opening narration are never addressed, but if a deluded Joe Wright had envisioned the answers would be provided in future installments the public surely thought differently.