Not long ago, as a conversational tic, young people would often call something “random” when they meant strange or unexpected. Pan is random in most ways. This prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan opens with a woman skulking though London neighborhoods, crossing Kensington Gardens — where there is a real-life statue of Peter Pan commissioned by Barrie in 1902 and erected in 1912 — and ends up outside a foundling home where she leaves a swaddled child. Skip forward a few years, and suddenly it’s World War II; the abandoned baby is named Peter, and he’s a hellion in a hellish Catholic orphanage. Apparently director Joe Wright’s prelude happens a half-century after its source material. The rest gets really dodgy with an aerial fight between flying pirate ships and British fighter planes, a chorus of babe-ish blonde RAF officers, and, at the final destination, a slagheap in Neverland, where thousands of child miners greet the incoming ship chanting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyrics. Randomissimo.
But the weirdest thing about Wright’s experimental fantasy film — and no one expected him to produce a normie Hollywood film — is how much he steals from other movies. Using a contemporary pop song is straight outta Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. A staged fight on trampolines in the native Neverland people’s villages feels too much like Steven Spielberg’s Hook. Director P.J. Hogan’s beautiful 2003 Peter Pan lurks behind the enchanted ship’s leap from city streets into outer space. It may be random, but it’s also considerably borrowed.
By now, you likely think I hate Pan. But there’s actually something quite exquisite nestled in all this improvising and theft. (For real weirdness, read Barrie’s first version of the story, a bizarre novel.) The movie withholds Pan’s magic until the very end. Wright plays us to the edge of frustration and then exhilarates. It’s weird and then fun. But you can’t make a popular movie based on whims and stolen ideas, and this art film deserves to be, unlike Peter himself, judged harshly for believing too much in itself.