Whether on the big-screen or the small screen, the media has venerated Scottish writer J.M. Barrie’s classic 1904 play and 1911 novel about a rambunctious boy who refused to grow up. Paramount Pictures produced the first and only silent movie about Peter Pan in 1924 with Barrie’s approval and cast Betty Bronson as the adolescent hellion. About 29 years later, Walt Disney appropriated the property and produced an animated epic with a 15-year old boy voicing Peter Pan. In the 1954 telecast of “Producers’ Showcase: Peter Pan,” actress Mary Martin impersonated Peter. This broadcast was aired again in 1963, then again in both 1966 and 1973. NBC broadcast the Hallmark Hall of Fame television adaptation in 1976 with Mia Farrow as the eternal youth. In 1987, Soviet television aired its own unauthorized adaptation, while in 1988 the Australians rendered their own unauthorized direct-to-video version. Steven Spielberg cast Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan in “Hook” (1991) with Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell. Captain Hook kidnaps Peter’s two children to lure a reluctant Peter back to Neverland. About ten years later, Disney released an animated sequel “Return to Never Land” (2002) to its 1953 original.” “Return to Never Land” occurs during World War II, and dastardly Captain Hook battles British fighter aircraft over London when he invades air space with his pirate-ship that he flies by means of pixie-dust. In 2003, P.J. Hogan helmed a traditional version of Barrie’s “Peter Pan” with a boy playing the protagonist, unlike a girl in two earlier versions. Indie film director Damion Dietz reimagined Barrie’s play in “Neverland” (2003) with Peter as an older teen confused about his gender, while Captain Hook was a homosexual, and Tiger Lily was a cross-dresser. More recently, the SyFy Channel produced its own mini-series “Neverland” (2011) with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys as thieves picking pockets galore in England around 1906 in a Charles Dickins spin on their footloose shenanigans.
“Atonement” director Joe Wright and “Ice Age: Continental Drift” scenarist Jason Fuchs have borrowed more from Charles Dickens than James Barrie for their ‘origins’ epic “Pan” (** OUT OF ****) that looks like it was designed to fuel a franchise. Basically, Wright and Fuchs introduce us to Peter before the boy could fly. The action unfolds in the late 1920s as Peter’s mother Mary (Amanda Seyfried of “Gone”) abandons her infant child mysteriously on the doorstep of an oppressive Catholic orphanage. Presided over by the corrupt, gluttonous Mother Barnabas (Kathy Burke), the Sisters of Eternal Prudence rule the Lambeth School for Boys as harshly as a penitentiary. Inexorably, time elapses, and the year is now 1939. World War II has erupted, and the Nazis have embarked on a massive aerial bombing campaign against the British. The Sisters horde food and conceal more treasure than you could find at the end of a rainbow. Ironically, Mother Barnabas keeps a statue of Mary in her room. All she has to do is twist Mary’s delicate snout, and a partition in the floor opens to reveal everything that the sisters have hidden. Furthermore, the good Mother has been selling orphans to pirates passing in the night. Twelve- year old Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) has become such a thorn in the Mother’s side that she sells him to those pirates. Specifically, the pirate passing in the night is the infamous Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman of “Wolverine”) and he cruises in on an 18th century sailing ship that charts its path through the stars. In other words, he flies his ship across the same skies that Hitler’s Luftwaffe uses to bomb London. Blackbeard’s men descend through the orphanage skylights in the dead of night and snatch the boys Mother Barnabas has sold him. Imagine bungee-cording into a building and bouncing back aboard a ship in the sky, and you’ve got an idea how Blackbeard stages these abductions.
Blackbeard escapes the British RAF fighter pilots prowling the night skies, ascends above the clouds, and wings his way back to Neverland. He employs these poor youngsters as slaves to mine for pixim. Essentially, pixim is ‘fairy dust,’ and the villainous Blackbeard uses it keep his ships aloft. The first time we are shown Blackbeard’s kingdom with its massive quarries where the mining is done, the premises resemble the citadel in the fourth Mad Max movie “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Incredibly, after Blackbeard arrives with his latest conscripts, the children that he has already imprisoned serenade them with the Nirvana song “Smells like Teen Spirit.” When he isn’t conscripting lads for labor, Blackbeard has to contend with the quarrelsome natives who look nothing like Barrie’s “redskins” but more like Pacific Island natives. Later, Peter accuses an older miner of stealing the pixim that our hero has chiseled out of the quarry. The guards take him before Blackbeard and Peter finds himself poised on a plank sticking out of Blackbeard’s ship high above the quarry. During this sequence, Wright has the slave children warbling the Ramones’ song “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Miraculously, Peter doesn’t plunge to his death, and this impossibility bothers Blackbeard because he fears the youth may be ‘the chosen one’ sent to topple him. While Peter toils in the mines, he meets James Hook (Garrett Hedlund of “TRON: Legacy”), and this time around Hook is a good guy. Hook and Peter manage to escape from Blackbeard and lead an uprising that eventually deposes Blackbeard.
Anybody familiar with Barrie’s “Peter Pan” will wince at the liberties that “Pan” takes. Wright and Fuchs have omitted ninety percent of Barrie’s book. Wendy, John, and Michael Darling who flew out the window with Peter in Barrie’s book have been left out of this cinematic version as have their bereft parents. Hook’s only close encounter with a crocodile occurs when one leaps over the raft that Peter and he share with Tiger Lily. Furthermore, Hook isn’t even a pirate. He looks more like Indiana Jones than a miner. If you’re wondering about Blackbeard’s presence, Barrie mentioned him only once in his novel. Meantime, Wright and Fuchs have expanded his minor role considerably. Hugh Jackson is horribly miscast as the notorious pirate. He looks like a refugee from the 1970s’ disco group The Village People. Mysteriously enough, in one scene, we see Blackbeard inhaling an enigmatic gas to keep from growing old. Worse, compared with most fantasy villains, Jackman’s Blackbeard isn’t particularly treacherous. Rooney Mara of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” looks just as ridiculous as Tiger Lily. The people who produced “Pan” have spared no expense with their lavish $150 million budget. Nothing about “Pan” looks cheap. The computer-generated special effects are flawless, and the 3-D version will knock your eyes out. Additionally, composer John Powell has contributed an exhilarating orchestral theme, but nothing can compensate for the hopelessly predictable plot. Nevertheless, the less you know about the literary “Peter Pan,” the more you may enjoy this outlandish half-baked hokum.