TO be a pirate king – or not, in this prequel to the adventures of the boy who wouldn’t grow up
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara, Garrett Hedlund, Levi Miller
Star rating: ***
This fantasy prequel to Peter Pan reimagines the characters from JM Barrie’s tale of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” as the potential projections of a young boy living through the Blitz. Having been left on the steps of a London orphanage with a panpipe locket around his neck, the mischievous Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) is whisked away one night on a flying pirate ship and immediately becomes embroiled in a dogfight with spitfires en route to Neverland. The captain of the ship is Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), a nefarious pirate who is stealing kids to put to work down the mines of Neverland in an effort to replenish supplies of a mysterious entity called Pixum, the elusive and magical fairy dust that gives pixies their power. It also functions as a sort of rejuvenating elixir for Blackbeard, allowing him to rule Neverland with tyrannical zeal in a desperate bid to prevent a Chosen One prophecy destined to bring his reign to an end from coming true.
No stranger to imaginative reinterpretations of classic literature, director Joe Wright is even more anarchic here than he was with his unfairly maligned take on Anna Karenina, throwing in anachronistic soundtrack choices – Blackbeard makes his big entrance to an a cappella version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit – and cramming together all sorts of disparate ideas, from National Geographic-inspired landscapes to boys-own fantasies about villains and heroes. After Peter discovers he has the gift of flight, for instance, he pairs up with an egotistical, crocodile-hating adventurer by the name of James Hook, who is not yet the villainous captain the Lost Boys will come to fear, but more of a try-hard Indiana Jones type, as annoying as he is heroic (and played as such by Garrett Hedlund). Together Peter and Hook escape the mines, encounter mermaids, crocodiles and the exotic Neverbird, and plot the downfall of Blackbeard with the help of an ass-kicking Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).
Not everything about this wilfully chaotic approach works, of course. The pace is often wearying and the plotting gets a little muddled as the Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey tropes infringe on the more anarchic elements. But it’s a decent family adventure film nonetheless, geared towards entertaining children rather than pleasing overgrown fanboys.
And in Jackman the film has a star willing to embrace the panto villainy of his role, but also give it texture and depth. His Blackbeard may have all the power, but he’s no longer sure he really wants to remain in control of Neverland – the efforts to stave off the prophecy having twisted him into a bitter, unhappy soul withering beneath an artificially youthful exterior. Even pirates have to grow up sometime.