Pan: Quirky retelling of classic tale requires embracing the absurd

Hugh Jackman and a chorus of hundreds beckons the call: “Here we are now; entertain us!”

Over and over and over again in a melancholic work camp chant, they intone, pleading to be quenched in their thirst for violent justice, screaming Kurt Cobain-penned, 90s grunge rock lyrics.

The chaotic, post-apocalyptic scene feels like something straight out of George Miller’s epic fantasy “Mad Max: Fury Road,” but that would make just too much sense.

Instead, what viewers are left with in this very real scene is director Joe Wright’s earliest departure from convention and plot coherency in the atypical children’s film “Pan,” a prequel retelling of the familiar Peter Pan tale.

It’s scenes like this – and a subsequent attempt to cinematically murder young kids by forcing them off the plank into a pit while chanting “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones – that are the kind of irrational, obscure nonsense Wright peddles throughout the film that makes viewers wonder just what in the world they’ve gotten themselves into.

The whole affair – nearly two hours in length – is a children’s apocalyptic nightmare crafted by Wright, whose work is a directorial Frankenstein of Miller and “Alice in Wonderland”-era Tim Burton.           

Dark and brooding at times when Wright wants to elevate the “steampunk” motifs of the film’s World War II era England settings, “Pan” shines bright visually once viewers transition to Neverland. Wright’s use of enhanced, over-brightened color palettes is reminiscent of Miller’s “Fury Road” as well as Wright’s fantastic 2010 action-thriller “Hanna,” just without the dynamic plot or performances that make those two films stand out.

Despite secondary lead status in terms of screen time, Jackman dominates the frame both in star power and charisma. Like Angelina Jolie in “Maleficent,” his villainous pirate captain Blackbeard is the reason to show up for “Pan” and he truly looks like he’s enjoying every minute of the experience. Glad someone is.

Newcomer Levi Miller is capable, though not very memorable as Peter, giving the type of performance you’d expect from an actor playing Pan as if a supporting role and not the titular main character of the film.

Media concerns about “white-washing” a Native American part aside, Rooney Mara gives exactly the type of off-kilter, quirky look that Wright had to have been going after as native princess Tiger Lily. Like all her performances, Mara commits fully to the role, though there’s not much within the rather generic script to work with.

The film’s other leading ladies – Amanda Seyfried as Peter’s long lost mother and Cara Delevigne of “Paper Towns” fame as a school of mermaids – aren’t given enough screen time or character development to be relevant to the film, no matter how many mute mermaids Delevigne awkwardly model-faces her way through on screen. Having five sea creatures with Delevigne’s face plastered on them doesn’t change the fact that none of them are worth watching for any length of time. Wright completely misses the mark here.

Traditionally the villain, Garrett Hedlund’s Captain Hook is friend, not foe, to Peter Pan, though it’s next to impossible to recognize Hedlund as Hook when he thinks he’s playing Indiana Jones. Generic khaki ensemble, dry wit and an aversion to dealing with children make Hedlund less a future pirate and more a Harrison Ford starter kit, except Hedlund lacks the charisma to pull it off. Everything about Hook’s character in “Pan” oozes of a sequel that will likely never get made and viewers are left hanging waiting for something worthwhile to happen. Spoiler alert: nothing ever does.

In another world where the film’s $150 million budget doesn’t feel like an anchor weighing the pirate adventure film down, Wright’s highly artistic auteur style might actually pay off. There’s several individual moments within “Pan” where viewers will say “That was really cool.” But Wright can’t seem to bridge the large gaps in time between these scenes and in the kids’ film genre, boredom equals doom.

Audiences are expected to irrationally embrace the absurd and surreal in ‘Pan’ without cause or justification. Better films have been made in this style – even Wright’s own ‘Hanna’ – but none of those are children’s films. The style simply doesn’t work in a genre where the attention spans of audiences wane so much.

Nothing overty offensive occurs in the film in either script or storytelling, but there’s not much there for children to enjoy either. There’s a much greater chance that younger audiences will leave bored rather than scarred. “Pan” ends up being a decently made film intended for kids, but made for adults.

All the warning signs are there. Ninety percent of audiences who weren’t born when Nirvana made “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the anthem for a new era of rock rebellion and have no idea who the Ramones are simply aren’t ready for the visual and cultural subtexts an auteur like Wright attempts to salvage his film by cramming into “Pan.”

At the end of the day, kids who catch the film are going to go home and cry out: “Here we are now; entertain us!”

“Pan” simply won’t do the trick.

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