The origin or prequel story has become as synonymous with Hollywood as the sequel or reboot. Contrived as a tool to keep re-inventing the “forgotten past,” it has become a way to re-brand an older property for a new audience. The conceit has become overstuffed, largely unnecessary, and wholesomely unoriginal and at its worse, allows the property to continue without any sniff of originality on the new installment. While everything was against it, this wasn’t the case initially with Pan.
The roots of Peter Pan are in the same pool as a prequel to Han Solo or Maleficent. The question of where he came from was never necessary to the larger story, as were the initial introductions between him and Captain Hook, Tinkerbell, or Tiger Lilly.
We are greeted by Peter (played by newcomer Levi Miller) in London, where he has been dropped off in front of an orphanage by his mother in a basket with a note — like every other orphan child over the course of human history. Unexpectedly, Peter has a greater destiny than stealing food from the comically stereotyped nuns, instead, he is destined to save Neverland from the malevolent, Captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).
Jackman plays Blackbeard with an air of balefulness, and a heavy dose of camp. Channeling his inner Disney cartoon Captain Hook, Jackman brings life to the film, even if that may be overbearing at times. Blackbeard has overtaken Neverland, but the prophecy states that a boy will come to join the natives and the fairies in liberating the world from his tyranny.
What Pan gets right is the amount of forgiveness to give its plot. Director Joe Wright uses a deft hand in allowing the picture to not take itself too seriously for most of the first hour. A pirate ship navigates through the London sky as fighter planes chase and shoot at it, the pirates of Neverland jam to Nirvana and The Ramones, and the side characters feel like disregarded Three Stooges sketches rather than real people, but that is all forgiveable because there is such a life to the film.
Multiple times, the film truly has a playful and youthful exuberance that goes hand-in-hand with the material it is pulling from. While this is Peter Pan before earning the title, it feels like we are re-entering the classic tale with fresh eyes. We can guess the next move for most of the story, but it is always upfront about it — never acting like the wheel is being re-invented. It understands what it is and where it is coming from and never rejects that.
Or at least, until the end.
As we dive into the heart of the story, and the message that is in tow, Pan begins to lose this magic in favor of something we have seen time and time again. While the rest of the movie carried this same heartfelt destiny quality, it is more frustrating with Pan, which initially accepted this and tried to create variety. Wright forgoes the creative fervor for most of the second and third acts to chase this destiny plot, which lacks the same pageantry or spirit of the movie up to that point.
It is easy to forgive a movie for being unoriginal, we see them almost weekly now with blockbusters, but it is another thing to forgive a movie that was so vehemently upfront about its lackluster beginnings and was combating that notion with some inspired work.
At times, Pan is a ride worth taking and a celestial journey into a fantasy land that is so enjoyably out of reach. But, it also is its own worst enemy, choosing to lose the pomp and splendor for a straightforward story that we knew was coming, but hoped for a better delivery.
Unlike most origin stories, Pan was succeeding at instituting a new magic act for the property. Too bad, it didn’t have the courage to stand true until the end.