"Sometimes, to understand the end, you have to know the beginning" goes the early narration in Pan—and it's hard to imagine a 2015 movie that fails so spectacularly at fulfilling its own thesis statement.
We've become accustomed to movies that attempt some new spin on a familiar pop-culture character, whether it's the seemingly infinite brand-extensions in Disney's live-action versions of its animated classics, or relatively sedate tales like Mr. Holmes. In the risk-averse world of modern movie-making, it's easy to understand why studios take advantage of opportunities where half the marketing work is already done for them. There even sometimes can be uniquely fertile creative ground in re-imagining a well-known narrative for a different era, or to explore a new theme.
But there's a promise implicit in the above quote, as well as in the related tagline ("Every legend has a beginning") employed in Pan's ad campaign: This movie is going to provide a backstory that evolves logically into the Peter Pan known from J.M. Barrie's book, or from the beloved Walt Disney animated feature. That does not happen.
The screenplay by Jason Fuchs opens with a child being left by his mother (Amanda Seyfried), on an orphanage doorstep in London accompanied by a letter and a necklace with a pan-flute charm. Twelve years later, in the middle of the World War II Blitz of London, young Peter (Levi Miller) lives with the other orphans, getting into adventurous shenanigans that vex the greedy, cruel nun who runs the place. Throw in a few musical production numbers about their hard-knock life, and you'd have Pannie.
Soon, most of the orphans have been kidnapped by the bungee-jumping crew of a flying pirate ship and spirited away to the airborne island of Neverland. There they are turned into slave laborers for the pirate Blackbeard (a pleasantly campy Hugh Jackman), mining a rare mineral that provides the fairies with their fairy dust, which includes among its powers the ability to bestow eternal youth. It's here that Peter meets James Hook (Garrett Hedlund, chewing over his dialogue with a ferocity that might convince you he's faking his actual American accent); the surly, fedora-wearing adult has apparently been working in these mines since childhood, and he presumably is destined to eventually lose his hand and turn into Peter's primary adversary. It's also here that director Joe Wright (Anna Karenina ) gets cutesy trying to turn Neverland into a place out of time, so that the kids can chant the lyrics to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" upon the arrival of the new recruits, and we can learn the new level of chutzpah required to ignore the ironic significance of "Here we are now/ Entertain us."
The rest of the plot is a dense collection of elements—characters including a hidden population of fairies with a near-infinite supply of "pixium"; a group of Neverland natives, including the warrior princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara); the mysterious tale of Peter's mother—intended to build an archetypal hero-quest character arc for Peter as he tries to determine if he is "The One" foretold by prophecy to defeat Blackbeard and the pirates. But the fundamental nature of the hero's quest is that it's a coming-of-age story. This makes literally zero sense when the character we're talking about is Peter Pan. The character's singlemost defining trait—the one everybody knows—is that he never wants to grow up. Yet, somehow, someone thought it was a brilliant idea to suggest that the legend of that mischievous eternal adolescent began with him learning to accept his heroic destiny.
It's fair to ask if such a reading ignores what Pan delivers as simple fantasy spectacle—and indeed, it is occasionally satisfying on that superficial level. Some of the characters die in explosions of pastel powder that make the action sequences resemble a Hindu Festival of Colors; the soaring pirate ship flies past spherical floating oceans inhabited by strange creatures. But the decision to take an energetic kiddie-oriented blockbuster and connect it to the story of Peter Pan was one made by the filmmakers, and you can't have it both ways: If you're going to pull viewers in by telling them you'll explain how a young boy became Peter Pan, you'd better actually give them Peter Pan. We already understood the ending, but whatever beginning it might have, this ain't it.