Whatever drugs director Joe Wright may or may not have been on when he wrestled Pan to the ground, pulverizing the material into a quivering mound of monkey-bread dough, you can trust that they were synthetic. Not a single emotional moment in this entire origin story for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Captain Hook, and Neverland feels organic. While that’s not to say there aren’t some occasionally well-engineered effects, it’s just that you have to fight the creeping sense that you’re being jerked around by toxic elements. The imitation flavors kick in almost immediately, as Amanda Seyfried’s harried street urchin drops off a bassinet containing her newborn son Peter at the front door of a Dickensian orphanage, where a crack team of whiskered, porcine nuns work hard to destroy the hopes and dreams of their charges, especially as WWII and its accompanying food rations loom.
From there, Pan banks a pretty sharp turn into manufactured whimsy when an airborne pirate ship hovers over the boys’ dormitory and Cirque du Soleil-worthy buccaneers yo-yo their way through the skylights to kidnap a now-adolescent Peter (Levi Miller) and the other orphans, whisking them away to Neverland. As comparatively inventive as Wright’s staging of a floating Jolly Roger dodging through nighttime dogfights and igniting zeppelins is, the steam runs out of this steampunk fantasia as soon as they all disembark in the pits of the ruthless Blackbeard’s (Hugh Jackman) fairy-dust mines. (The new recruits are inducted into their slave labor with a groaningly Baz Luhrmannian flourish, as thousands of Lost-Boys-cum-mini-Mad-Max extras chant their way through a tribal cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) Peter’s new lot in life is mitigated by the paternal gestures of fellow captive laborer James Hook (Garrett Hedlund, whose wicked Indiana Jones antics are among the film’s lone bright spots).
It’s not long before we learn young Peter, who wears a charm necklace of a pan flute, can fly, and that his hunky mentor is none other than the man who will become his crocodile-fearing, Smee-smacking nemesis in Neverland. And thus most of the potential thrills of origin stories are subsumed by the palpable sense that, like the worst paperback mysteries, Pan started with the ending and simply worked backward. That might have allowed for some small merits if Wright and screenwriter Jason Fuchs had embraced the Alice in Wonderland randomness of it all, but even taking into account the level of storybook fantasy on display, the number of coincidences that have to play out to set into motion the movie’s “prophecy” would fuel an entire series of incredulous episodes of the How Did This Get Made? podcast.