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Edgy reimagining of Peter Pan tale should have been a full-on musical

Fairy dust traps boys in Pan and a different type of powder traps young ones in a trade in Straight Outta Compton

Two movies this week tackle origin stories, both set in lands where people do very bad things for a precious dust that makes you fly.

In Los Angeles in the 1980s, trade in a certain powder trapped boys and created warlords. In the imaginary Neverland, fairy dust did the same thing.

Midway through Pan (PG, 112 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 STARS), one thing becomes clear: The unfolding story begs to have characters who kick up their heels, open their throats and just sing.

Pan has everything found in musicals, from its exuberantly theatrical tone to the complex practical sets, minus the sung dialogue and dancing. There is a little music, but it enters sneakily. Snatches of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit animate Blackbeard's (Hugh Jackman) assembly of the Lost Boys. Proto-punk band Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop gives a cartoonish sheen to the pirate-ship battles.

So who knows why this edgier re-imagining of the origins of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan character didn't get the full Into The Woods (2014) libretto treatment?

Both share the same winking tone, acknowledging that the audience knows and loves the kid-lit source material, with an invitation to watch the familiar get remixed and renewed.

Well, up to a point. Young Hook (Garrett Hedlund), for example, is a vagabond and former Lost Boy, not yet a pirate captain. There is the familiar Mermaid Lagoon, complete with crocodile.

Screenwriter Jason Fuchs' pedigree is in theatre, which explains much, but he and director Joe Wright (Oscar-winning period drama Atonement, 2007) are over-cautious with canon.

Peter (Levi Miller) is an orphan, half-starved by wicked nuns and wartime food rationing. Pirates led by Blackbeard (Jackman) literally pluck him from his bed to throw him into pits where work gangs of snatched children dig up fairy dust. The whimsy of the Pan book and its film adaptations is stripped away. The conditions at the orphanage and the Neverland mines are Dickensian, the stuff of a kid's nightmares. In contrast, the dogfights between flying pirate ships are ecstatic fantasy.

This is not the Peter Pan story you know - this is a big-budget, 3-D action-adventure with sequences with real scares and vertigo-inducing framing. Those taking young children to watch it, take note.

Jackman's Blackbeard is a high point. He is vain, self-pitying and the best megalomaniac to come along in ages. But elsewhere, Wright settles for a safe retreat into visual spectacle and a garbled narrative that shoehorns matinee-idol hero (Hedlund's bland Hook) into the tale in a bid to tick demographic checkboxes.

The other story about bad childhoods and heroic journeys is Straight Outta Compton (M18, 147 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 STARS), which deals with the key members of the hip-hop group N.W.A. - a work that is now the highest-grossing musical biopic in the United States.

The first third plays like a heist thriller; director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, 2003) orients audiences to the streets of Reagan-era south Los Angeles with a stylish efficiency while introducing group members.

Gray's restless, reality TV-style camera keeps a focus on the young up-and-comers as dreamers and dealmakers and, in their own way, masculine all-American individualists fighting the system at every turn; the helpful influence of women, families and community is so minimised as to be almost absent.

Framed that way, the dramatic stakes could not be higher. Other biopics offer its protagonists obscurity or fame; here the options are hip-hop or a violent death at the hands of gangs or the police.

The self-aggrandising opening is followed up by a self-pitying, superficial final half, which seeks sympathy for the plight of the genius not getting his financial due because that is all that matters in this story.

This is mainly about contract negotiations, persuaded along with baseball bats and pistols, with an orgy or two thrown in for no reason other than to give something for audiences to see.

Left unexamined are a dozen more interesting questions, such as why the pretend violence of rap lyrics is often followed up with real violence in the lives of hip-hop artists.

Ice Cube (the rapper-actor's real son, O'Shea Jackson Jr, turning in a formidable performance) and Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) look the best here; no surprise, given they are also the producers in this ode to the pursuit of money and power.

The neat suburban world of Nolan Mack (Robin Williams) could not be more different from that of Ice Cube and Dr Dre, and neither could his motivations.

The mild-mannered loans officer in Boulevard (R21, 88 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 STARS ) faces the impending death of his father, the last person holding him back from accepting his homosexuality.

That impulsive coming out causes fallout that he struggles to handle. Wife Joy (Kathy Baker), old friend Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and his employers test his resolve, especially after he chooses to fall in love with a street hustler, Leo (Roberto Aguire).

Williams, in his last on-screen role before his death by suicide last year is enormously likeable as Nolan, a man with secrets that no one is interested in hearing. Baker is an especially strong performer.

But all deserve a better script than the earnest, plodding one delivered by relative newcomer Douglas Soesbe, not helped by lethargic directing from musician and film-maker Dito Montiel (Empire State, 2013).

Montiel, struggling to find a space between television melodrama and indie edginess, lands squarely in snoozeville.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'Dust makes people do dirty things'. Print Edition | Subscribe