“Who the bloody hell am I?” asks a young Peter-not-quite Pan in Pan, the costly $150 million Warner Bros. bomb in which J.M. Barrie’s immortal boy-hero embraces his destiny on an island ruled by a dandy pirate (Hugh Jackman). That dandy pirate isn’t the familiar Captain Hook we love to loathe, but Blackbeard, a sickly megalomaniac who forces his slave army of orphans to sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as they mine for pixie dust, and this Peter hasn’t yet become the boy who can fly although we’re repeatedly told he’s the chosen one, the reluctant superhero, the Neo of Neverland.
If that doesn’t quite sound like the Peter Pan you know, it’s not, and Peter’s existential crisis extends to the garish, ambitious, curiously odd, and utterly flawed Pan. Cobbling together patchwork parts of every fantasy blockbuster from Harry Potter to Indiana Jones to Avatar to The Matrix, the big-budget prequel aims to reimagine the century-old character yet again, despite the fact that over a dozen other big-screen adaptations and spinoffs have been attempted to varying degrees of success.
Each time someone tries to bring Peter Pan back to life, it seems, they don’t learn from the past. As Warner Bros. discovered the hard way last weekend after pouring a guesstimated $250 million into the PG-13 adventure and its worldwide marketing campaign, which could lose the studio an estimated $150 million, Pan had a serious identity crisis, and audiences couldn’t make heads or tails of what it was supposed to be, either. Instead of flocking to the fantasy epic, they stayed away from theaters in droves while critics sent Pan plummeting off the plank.
So what’s to blame for Hollywood’s failed attempts to breathe new life into the Pan mythos? For a property that asks of its audience simply to believe and stretch their imaginations, Peter Pan’s seen a lot of haters crow over misfire after misfire that have sent the beloved character straying into new territory—be it Steven Spielberg’s (unfairly!) spurned Hook, or last year’s flat television spectacle Peter Pan Live!, which drew only half the viewers of its predecessor. (One silver lining in Pan’s abysmal critical and commercial performance is that Hook, which built a ’90s-kid cult following despite earning heaps of critical disdain, now might not seem so terrible by comparison.)
Fans have historically been willing to give the source material only so much room to evolve, never to grow up or out with the changing times. The relationship one has to Peter Pan tends to change as you grow older, like Wendy, while he remains a fixed point in Neverland, leading the Lost Boys in an endless play-march toward oblivion. To kids he’s an ideal of pure childhood abandon free of parental control; as adults, we can see him as a tweenage cipher who reminds us not to lose our inner child, else we risk turning into miserable adults.
It’s believed that author and playwright Barrie molded the character after his brother David, who died at 13 in an ice skating tragedy when Barrie was 6 years old. Memorialized within Pan lore first in the 1904 stage play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, and then in Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, David would never grow old, or grow at all—trapped instead eternally on Barrie’s pages at an age of defiant individualism. But by the same token he never could grow up into adulthood and responsibility and love and any family of his own.
Peter Pan as a mythical adolescent figure—rebellious, mercurial, courageous, everything any of us wanted to be at age 13—is therefore rooted in Barrie’s own personal romanticized tragedy. But he’s never been the audience’s way into Neverland. Even in traditional iterations dating back to his original stage play and novel, it’s not Pan but Wendy Darling, the girl who loves him with a maternal adoration and a tinge of teenage infatuation, who bears witness to his greatness and his folly even when she ultimately chooses to grow up without him.
That’s a lot of subtext that doesn’t appear in Pan, which plays more like a Spider-Man origin story for children and puts Peter at the fore. As an orphaned rapscallion living in WWII London, he’s snatched from his bed one night by bungee-diving pirates, who escape through the night sky while dueling with RAF fighter pilots. Plunked down in Neverland and forced to work in Blackbeard’s mines alongside a gruff cowboy (Garrett Hedlund), Peter finds he can fly and learns he may or may not be the prophesied savior meant to lead the indigenous multi-culti locals and a race of fairies against their Nirvana-crooning oppressors.
The thrust of Pan, written by Jason Fuchs and directed with visual flair by Joe Wright (Anna Karenina, Hanna), is watching as Peter repeatedly fends off crippling doubt to claim his pre-ordained destiny as a leader. With its focus squarely on Peter (Wendy and her brothers are nowhere to be found, while Tinkerbell shows up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her CGI cameo), it broadcasts a message of self-confidence rather than the more traditional Pan missives: Never grow up, always believe, think happy thoughts.
“It will live in your heart forever!” promised the tagline for Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, the 1953 animated movie that established a faithful canon against which all other filmed versions would be compared. The Disney version—Michael Jackson’s favorite movie of all time—has stayed mostly indelible over the decades, save for its racist portrayal of Native Americans (a firestorm Wright and Warner Bros. replicated by casting Rooney Mara as Princess Tigerlily). Disney’s animated classic, a staple of the Mouse House’s lucrative merch business, is so fruitful it’s seen seven re-releases over the years and spawned a 2000s-era franchise reboot spanning an animated sequel, six Tinkerbell direct-to-video spin-offs, and a forthcoming live-action Tink starring Reese Witherspoon.
Onstage, the famed production of Peter Pan starring Mary Martin in the role of Peter also became a defining presentation of the material, earning Tony Awards for Martin and her Captain Hook, Cyril Ritchard. The Broadway musical was legendarily staged for NBC broadcast in color in 1955, 1956, and 1960, searing the image of Martin swinging cheerily from the rafters into pop canon, in an era when the earnestness of Peter Pan lore was celebrated, rather than scrutinized. Nobody since has been able to redefine Peter Pan away from the Peter Pan of the 1950s.
Later high-profile iterations famously didn’t fare so well. Even Spielberg can’t quite muster love for his own 1991 live-action film Hook, which starred Robin Williams as a cynical, grown-up Peter who must remember how to be young again in order to save his family. On the one hand, it gave fans “Ru-fi-oooo” and insults like “Boil-dripping, beef fart-sniffing bubble butt” to deposit into the nostalgia bank, actually did make money, and earned five mostly technical Oscar nods. On the other, it tanked with critics so badly the stink never washed off. “I want to see Hook again because I so don’t like that movie,” Spielberg admitted in a 2013 interview.
Return To Neverland, Disney’s animated 2002 sequel to the 1953 classic, shifted focus to Jane, the young daughter of a now-grown Wendy, who is kidnapped and taken to Neverland to learn the same lessons that her mother did years before. Critics reacted with a collective “meh,” and the sequel was quickly forgotten. The next year, a handsomely mounted $122 million live-action Peter Pan from Universal and Columbia Pictures scored solid reviews with a mostly faithful plot, but barely made its budget back.
Meanwhile, the child miners and pirates of Pan shout-chant “Blitzkrieg Bop” during another of the film’s curiously idiosyncratic moments, the second time director Wright swings for the fences and unleashes Jackman’s cartoonishly vile Blackbeard unto Neverland to gobble up all the scenery. If there’s a meaningful point to Pan’s use of the Ramones punk anthem and Nirvana’s best-known grunge ditty a la Moulin Rouge, Wright doesn’t make it, and Pan never fully swings for the bizarro fantasy fences. If anything, it doesn’t go far enough—for the full Baz—and instead, disappointingly, Pan eases into the kind of tidily-scripted, wooden CG-fests that turns so many blockbusters into snoozers. Warner Bros. had already started planning for a sequel, which seems rather unlikely now. But if enough people truly believe…