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For Joe Wright and 'Pan,' the Neverland vogue, now on the big-screen

For Joe Wright and 'Pan,' the Neverland vogue, now on the big-screen
Levi Miller portrays Peter in the coming action-adventure movie "Pan," directed by Joe Wright. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Peter Pan has been riding a wave on TV and Broadway over the last few years, generating solid ratings and ticket sales. Now the film business, longer of process but bigger of scope, will make its first of the present-moment forays when "Pan," an origin story from Warner Bros. and director Joe Wright, heads to theaters in October.

On Thursday, the studio took the wraps off the movie at a cozy event here with Wright and Aussie youngster Levi Miller, the newcomer who plays Peter. In a boutique downtown hotel, the studio showed footage from the film, which has high all-ages hopes, a kind of PG complement to the shared-universe ambitions of its DC Comics movies.

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As written by Jason Fuchs, "Pan" centers on a young Peter circa 1940s London seeking his mother but caught up in adventures in Neverland. He teams with a young, still-benign Hook (Garrett Hedlund), comes up against the despotic Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman, seeming to have great non-Wolverine fun), and encounters an indigenous world keyed by Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara).

The footage — about 20 minutes of scenes throughout the movie — revealed the scope you'd expect from an undertaking of this sort. Wright in many spots eschewed CG effects in favor of practical sets, and it lends the film both a tangible texture and a throwback feel. Among those scenes are a flying-ship sequence with Peter and Hook, a plank-side sword battle between Blackbeard and Tiger Lily, and a trampoline-enhanced fight involving the whole crew.

For Wright, best known for high-toned literary adaptations such as "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement," the big-budget canvas was a switch — of a sort.

"One tries not to let it feel too different," he said in an interview with The Times after the footage screened. "The challenge was to make a big action-adventure but give it an emotional heartbeat. I wanted to make a film that bore witness to the love of a mother and child."

He added that he didn't see scope and a fine sense of authorship as incompatible. "You look at the early Spielberg movies, 'E.T.' and 'Close Encounters' and those movies, and they were entertainment for the whole family. But they were also very personal films."

Warners hopes "Pan," based of course on characters created by J.M. Barrie, taps into an all-ages adventure audience that Spielberg once owned. The studio isn't alone.  After years of so much broad entertainment coming in the darker PG-13 vein, there's something of a PG resurgence happening this fall. Besides "Pan," the season will bring similarly targeted movies such as Robert Zemeckis' "The Walk" and the literary adaptation "Goosebumps."

The new "Pan" has been the subject of some Internet heat for its casting of Mara, a non-Native American, to play someone who is of that background in many of the adaptations.

Wright said he understood the concerns but that the actress made sense for a number of creative reasons. "The original source material is not specific. Barrie uses a few terms that are contradictory; it's only later adaptations that see her as Native American," Wright noted.

"Having said that, a Native American and entire community of Native Americans would have felt quite difficult; I think it might have seemed insensitive to have an entire community of warriors who were Native American. By making them indigenous people from around the world [instead] I was able to avoid that, and it also allowed me to bring in elements of world culture and world music from all over, which I really love."

He added that he hoped judgment would be rendered fully only in time. "I think one has to respect people's feelings and I completely understand people's concerns; I'm totally against casting whitewashing," he said. "But I'm confident that when people see the film they will understand the choice I made in the context of the film."

Incidentally, Wright  said he considered casting an actress as Peter, as has been common in many of the theater renditions. "But then I realized it was just a bit gimmicky. Casting a woman as Peter works on stage — kind of — but it doesn't work on film. You wouldn't really believe it."

Wright, both in the interview and in a public talk after the footage, referenced Victorian pantomime, the 19th century live-theater British art form that saw the colorful reenactments of classic stories, as a reference point.

The director said the current vogue for Pan can't be chalked up to any one cultural factor — indeed, the combination of brand recognition and public domain probably doesn't hurt when it comes to studio greenlights — but wondered if certain sociological conditions played a role.

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"We're living in some quite uncertain times," he said. "People are not as confident as they were in the recent past. I think they're looking for something that reminds them of when they felt safe. Peter Pan and even superhero movies are reminders of that. They speak to collective anxieties and make us feel better about them."

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