There's much to sadly shake your head at in Pan, a sort of Peter Pan Begins that manages the unlikely feat of making battles between flying pirate ships a crushing bore. Most miserably, there's the great heap of action set pieces that are easier to wait out than to track with an instrument so primitive as the human eye — perhaps the singularity is nearing, and director Joe Wright's computers are whipping these scenes up exclusively for the enjoyment of advanced artificial intelligences.
There's also a profound cluelessness about tone. In the opening scenes, set in London during the blitz, our chosen-one orphan boy hero Peter (Levi Miller) is more shaken by a pal's creaking fart than he is by the bombs raining down all about him. The filmmakers can't be bothered to summon up any of the feelings a kid might have while hunkering down as the Nazis attack, a clear sign they don't take kids or this story seriously. Another one: that the tribe of "savages" that must figure into all Peter Pan stories here turns out to be a population made up of actors from many of our world's nonwhite races, often in ooga-booga getup. The one exception, of course, is Tiger Lily, the princess, played by Rooney Mara.
But here's perhaps the most egregious betrayal of audience intelligence in this latest go at monetizing those aspects of J.M. Barrie's Neverland that have fallen into the public domain. An opening narration attempts to justify the choice to concoct an origin for Pan, that spirit of whimsy and play that certainly doesn't need backstory. "Sometimes to truly understand how things end, we must first know how they began," the movie insists — as if this is all somehow a thoughtful attempt to get at the root truths of Peter Pan, to explore the sources of our common myths.
It's not, of course. Pan is more evidence that big-budget studio entertainments now come from a sort of Build-A-Bear Workshop, where any unique part turns out to be only superficially different from the others. In this case, the bear has been set to "PG" and "Prebot," stuffed with believe-in-yourself filler, and then sparkled over with some proper nouns from Barrie. But I defy you to look in its dead eyes, or at all the scenes and characters cribbed from Star Wars and Avatar, and tell me it's a bear you haven't seen dozens of times before.
And, seriously, that bear is kind of dangerous: All through Pan, everyone tells the orphan hero that he's special, that he's chosen, that he can fly if he just dares to try. In the final scenes, of course, he finds his courage and tosses himself over the edge a boat afloat in some endless void — what the hell kind of lesson is that? That self-confidence beats gravity?
Yes, Peter Pan stories have always encouraged dreaming along and wishing you could soar out of your bedroom window. But this Pan is about prophecies and positive thinking, about destiny and preordained greatness, about Hollywood's insistence that you — yes, you! — have been born pre-equipped with the power to do anything if you just believe that you can. Somehow, this most British of fairy stories is fired through with the tenets of American exceptionalism.
In fairness, Pan has some moments. It's a marvelous moment when that flying pirate ship bursts out of Earth's atmosphere and into the cold quiet of space. Suddenly, the action stops, and Pan is quiet, blissed out, going for wonder rather than hurly-burly. That welcome respite is matched later, in an enchanted forest through which banners of faerie light stretch all about — but before you can relish it, Pan is right back to the chases. Some grownups might be amused at the introduction of Hugh Jackman's Blackbeard, the film's villain, in a sequence that puts an alt-rock musical-theater gloss on Immortan Joe's Fury Road Citadel and all that kiddo slave-labor mine terror from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jackman occasionally wins a laugh, when he manages to impose himself over the movie's restless clamor. His black feathers and lavish Vandyke make more of an impression than the performance.
Garrett Hedlund, by comparison, could use some costuming to hide behind. He plays a roguish prisoner of Blackbeard's named Hook; after escaping Blackbeard's mines, Hook and a not-yet-magical Peter Pan jaunt off across Neverland, buddies now but enemies-to-be in the sequels. The filmmakers imagine Hedlund as a Harrison Ford type, assigning him traits and plot beats from Ford's two most beloved roles, but Hedlund plays Ford like Jim Carrey might have on Mad TV or like a pro wrestler might if Han Solo were in the WWE: He's weirdly manic and strains each syllable as if getting the words out is as hard as passing a stone. Miller, as the seedling who will grow into Peter Pan, has little to do except look sure when everyone tells him he's special and important. Mara, meanwhile, plays that oldest and weakest of adventure-tale archetypes: the girl. She's miscast, but I still felt for her, especially in all the scenes where — despite being royalty, a world-class fighter, and in the prime of her life — her character has to stand around doing nothing except reassuring a little boy that he's the one who will save them all.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Levi Miller, Adeel Akhtar, and Kathy Burke. Directed by Joe Wright. Written by Jason Fuchs. 111 minutes. Rated PG. Opens Friday, October 9.