Fidgeting with the iconic characters of a classic story is a dicey business at best. So it’s no great surprise that “Pan” (Warner Bros.), director Joe Wright’s attempt to provide J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan with an original backstory, turns out to be little more than a lavish but hollow special-effects extravaganza.
What’s more likely to raise eyebrows, at least among moviegoers of faith, is the thorough trashing of the Catholic Church the film engages in before their story departs World War II-era London for Barrie’s Neverland.
Peter was entrusted to an oppressive orphanage in infancy by his mother, Mary. There, Mother Barnabas, the piggish glutton of a nun who runs the place, hoards food from her hungry charges as the Luftwaffe drops its bombs. Entrance to her underground cache of delicacies is obtained by twisting the nose of a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Mother Barnabas’ behavior is of a piece with that of the other “Sisters of Eternal Prudence.” In fact, compared to the gruel, corporal punishments and soul-crushing emotional abuse they dole out, Peter’s later challenges seem like a jaunt in the country.
Those subsequent trials arise after Peter is whisked off to Neverland by minions of the nefarious pirate Blackbeard. Blackbeard is waging a war against his world’s forces of light, and uses kidnapped youths as slave laborers mining for powerful fairy dust.
Naturally Peter rebels, aided eventually by comely native warrior Tiger Lily and a young James Hook. Hook is, of course, Peter’s future nemesis according to the canonical sources. Here, however, he’s a likable — though withdrawn — veteran of the mines who somewhat reluctantly becomes Peter’s mentor.
Having demolished the only version of Christianity on offer, the film toys with talk of Peter as the promised “messiah” of this alternate universe. The figure of his estranged mother, with whom he longs to be reunited, becomes a subtly posed flesh-and-blood alternative to her namesake, the un-nurturing and dishonored plaster version of maternity proposed to him by Catholicism.
The path of religion, the script suggests, involves a denial of each person’s uniqueness and potential for great things. Thus Mother Barnabas — another bogus maternal persona, one who perversely starves rather than selflessly nourishes her children — emphatically informs Peter that, whatever the absent Mary may have thought of him, as evidenced by a suppressed note from his mom the lad has managed to discover, he’s nothing special.
By contrast to the despair that must inevitably result from such a pride-destroying faith, the magic of Neverland, which has at least some touches of the new age movement about it, holds out the promise of true fulfillment. Its alchemy transforms anonymous, downtrodden orphans — and Blackbeard’s indistinguishable drones — into prophesied heroes living out their destined greatness.
Unsuitable even for adults, this perilous cinematic journey — part run-of-the-mill theme ride, part wishful, willful ego trip -- is certainly not safe for children.
The film contains mean-spirited anti-Catholicism, a negative view of religion in general, brief sacrilegious and scatological humor, much stylized violence and a few mild oaths. (L, PG).