An 11-year-old boy, full of self-doubt, unrealized potential and enough charisma to charm the wings off Tinkerbell, is thrust into a situation of enormous responsibility. The future, nay, the salvation of multitudes rests on his shoulders. Can he rise -- literally -- to the occasion?
And are we talking about the hero of Joe Wright's "Pan," the combination adventure-messiah story by which the celebrated director revisits the Peter Pan myth? Yes, but the description might also apply to Levi Miller, the young English actor who, at the ripe old age of 11, was given the role of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up in the prequel to J.M. Barrie's original, a phantasmagorical adventure that poses the Pan character as a plucky urchin who's just about to come into his own.
"There were a lot of nice parallels between Levi's story and what we were shooting," said Rooney Mara ("The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), who plays Tiger Lily to the now-almost-13-year-old Miller's Peter. "He had all this pressure on him at such a young age, being the 'chosen one' and had to realize his capabilities and believe in himself. There was definitely a lot of that in Levi. It was really kind of sweet watching these stories come together while we were making the movie."
Added the young Levi, quite modestly: "It's something that's never been seen."
"I read the script sent to me by [screenwriter] Jason Fuchs," Wright said during interviews in Manhattan, "and I was just immediately drawn in by this incredibly original world. I saw myself superimposed, with my son, onto this character of Peter and I wanted to tell that story. I felt I knew a secret about it. I felt I knew who Peter was. And I understood what he went through."
Wright -- whose theatrical films include the Oscar-nominated "Atonement" (2007), "Pride and Prejudice" (2005) and "Anna Karenina" (2012), as well as "Hanna" (2011) and "The Soloist" (2009) -- had other motives as well.
"I'd been wanting to do a bigger, fantasy-adventure action movie," he said. "So having the two come together was something I was excited to try. I wanted to see if I could do it. I was scared of it. And fear is always a great motivator.
"I was also interested in what I might learn doing this movie."
What audiences will learn, after the movie opens Oct. 9, is that Peter was left on the steps of a London orphanage sometime in the late 1920s. He grows up to be something of a nuisance to the nuns, a headstrong heroic sort and a child pining for the mother he can't remember. As World War II rages across the continent, a different kind of calamity is bedeviling the boys of the orphanage: Child-snatchers are plunging through the roof, grabbing the lads and escaping skyward. They're all taken aboard a pirate ship that, after skittering across the Thames, heads for the clouds, the RAF in hot pursuit.
The ship's destination: A fantastical fairy dust-mining colony, ruled by a tyrannical maniac named Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman). Peter allies himself with an older, enslaved miner named Hook (Garrett Hedlund), discovers he just might have the ability to fly -- and foments a revolution.
Why World War II, and not the Edwardian era of "Peter Pan's" Scottish author? "I think it was chosen because Jason wanted Peter to escape from something, and the war seemed a world he'd want to escape from," Wright said, then laughed: "Also, I think he wanted to see a Spitfire have a fight with a flying pirate ship. Entirely selfish of him."
While it's certainly a visual-effects-driven movie, "Pan" also features unusual, even eccentric, performances by its cast. Hedlund's Han Solo-ish Hook, for example, who in his own very different way is as theatrical as any since Cyril Ritchard.
"Joe is a massive fan of the theater and he's sort of lived it his whole life, and I haven't," said the actor, who grew on a farm in northern Minnesota. "When we were rehearsing, he told us not to be afraid to be bigger than life and flamboyant and to find nuances that would, most importantly, make him laugh, and sort of make you laugh, too, because he gave you the freedom to be ridiculous."
But he'd do anything for Wright, Hedlund said. "I would have played Tinkerbell for him."
Wright said, "it's lovely to put people in roles they don't normally play, have Hugh play a villain, for instance, and Rooney doing action." Unlike some directors, he also likes working with children.
"Saoirse Ronan was 11 at the time we did 'Atonement,' and she set a very high bar for child actors," Wright said. "I was worried, but we found Levy, and he shone." He said working with kids isn't difficult "if you treat them with respect and don't talk down to them. Then it becomes a very direct line from me through them to the character -- they don't have big actors' egos, they don't have bad habits developed over years on television. They're really open to direction. And it reminds you why you do what you do."
Peter Pan's enduring screen presence
Peter Pan first took flight as a minor character in J.M. Barrie's 1902 novel "The Little White Bird," but his popularity prompted Barrie to write the 1904 play "Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up" (which ran till 1913) and then "Peter and Wendy," the 1911 novel. Beginning with Paramount's 1924 silent, "Peter Pan" has made it to the screen numerous times, and that's not counting the occasions in which he's only a suggestion (as in the 2004 Johnny Depp film "Finding Neverland" or the 1978 BBC docudrama, "The Lost Boys"). Here are a few of the more memorable trips to the land of Tinkerbell, and tick-tocking crocodiles.
PETER PAN (1954, '55, '60) Mary Martin was just one of many diminutive actresses to have taken on the role of the principal Lost Boy (others have included Eva Le Gallienne, Jean Arthur, Sandy Duncan, Cathy Rigby and Allison Williams, in NBC's dubiously titled "Peter Pan Live!" of last December). But Martin's performance was the definitive Pan for Boomers who saw the 1954 or '55 broadcast of the Broadway musical version, or the one in 1960 that was finally taped and rebroadcast. It was "event" television, a dose of fairy dust.
PETER PAN (1953) The Disney cartoon version that has become definitive in how the James Barrie characters look, act and even sound -- for instance, Corey Burton, who voices Captain Hook on the Pan-ish TV series "Jake and the Never-Land Pirates" is doing a dead-on impersonation of the legendary Hans Conried, who voiced Hook for the Disney film.
HOOK (1991) Steven Spielberg's live-action sequel had a rather morose quality to it, rooted in Robin Williams' middle-aged corporate lawyer Peter Banning -- the erstwhile Pan -- who returns to Neverland to rescue his kidnapped children. The rest of the casting was spot-on, as J.M. Barrie probably wouldn't have said, and included Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell, Bob Hoskins as Smee and a flamboyant Dustin Hoffman as Peter's nemesis -- and conscience -- Captain Hook.
RETURN TO NEVERLAND (2002) The Disney-produced animated sequel to its 1953 classic was a rather lackluster updating of all things Pan, but did respectable business at the box office, proving that there's a never-ending appetite for Peter, and for kid-friendly movies.
PETER PAN (2003) Directed by the Australian P.J. Hogan ("My Best Friend's Wedding), this was the first authorized and faithful-to-the-book adaptation in about half a century, and starred Jeremy Sumpter as Peter, Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy and Jason Isaacs in the dual role of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling (following the same conceit as the Mary Martin Hook, Cyril Ritchard, and Disney's Hans Conried).