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Peter Pan
Reviewed by Shane Ivey, © 2003

Format: Movie
By:   P.J. Hogan (writer, director)
Genre:   Fantasy
Released:   December 2003
Review Date:   December 30, 2003
Audience Rating:   Rated PG
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

The story of Peter Pan has been played out live many, many times. It began as a children's stage show years before creator J.M. Barrie turned it into a novel, a bed-time story about bed-time stories, one of the greatest of its kind. It's come to TV and movie theatres time and again, from a 1924 silent film to musical productions starring Mary Martin and Mia Farrow to Spielberg's misguided Baby-Boomer-in-therapy weeper, Hook.

But the popular conception of Peter Pan belongs to Disney, thanks to the 1953 feature-length cartoon. Everyone sing along, now: "We can fly! We can fly! We can fly!" Disney captured the childish whimsy of Barrie's story while sugarcoating both its childlike violence (which is to say bloody but rarely very final) and Barrie's winking, wise acknowledgment of the unthinking selfishness of children. Disney produced a fun adaptation fit, as Disney saw it, for the children of the day, so much less callous than their parents or grandparents had been fifty years before.

Universal's Peter Pan is something that hasn't been done before, not since that silent film, anyway: a straightforward, live-action Peter Pan movie. No singing, no dancing (well, a little of both, but perfectly in character). I wish I could say it has none of the cloying cuteness that ruins most children's movies for adults and children alike; but the film has its weaknesses.

"Oh, the cleverness of me!"

First things first. You're familiar with the story: Peter Pan is the one boy who never grew up. He ran away from his pram (that's a baby carriage to us Yanks) and fled to the Neverlands, where he lived for eternal adventure. There he befriended fairies, fell in with a few other boys who fell out of their prams and were lost — the Lost Boys — and to this day wars endlessly with those two great playtime enemies of adventuresome English boys, Indians and pirates. His archenemy, Captain James Hook, leads the pirates, and hates Pan for cutting off his hand in a duel and feeding it to a crocodile. The crocodile liked the taste of Hook so well that she's followed him ever since.

But Peter sometimes returns to the grownup world, listening secretly at night-time windows to hear bedtime stories that he can take back to the Lost Boys, who have no mother of their own to tell them any stories. Then one night disaster strikes, when Peter loses his shadow while listening at the window of the Darling family: Peter is caught, and the children's nursemaid, a dog named Nana (the Darlings were not very well off), grabs his shadow in her teeth when he escapes.

When Peter returns for his shadow, the Darlings' oldest child, Wendy, helps him sew it back on, and in thanks he takes her and her brothers to the Neverlands. Of course, it's not really in thanks. "Gay and innocent and heartless" is what Barrie called children, and none are as gay and innocent and heartless as Peter; he wants Wendy to come tell stories to the Lost Boys herself. She and her brothers are thrilled to, and never mind their parents' fears. Adventures follow.

"It's only a thimble."

Writer and director P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend's Wedding, Muriel's Wedding, Unconditional Love) has crafted a surprisingly literal adaptation of the book. Much is left out, and some things are new, but all in all it hits the main notes of the novel down to dialog and narration. Unfortunately, sometimes you can't help but question Hogan's judgment on what to include and what to add. The narration, for one thing, is intrusive and unnecessary. Barrie's narration in the novel is indispensable, but in the film it says nothing that couldn't have easily been conveyed in dialog.

The film's opening scenes feel forced, rushing into the first glimpse of Peter without introducing the concept of him first, as Barrie cleverly did in the book with Wendy describing dreams of Pan to her mother. Then there are too many scenes showing Mr. Darling's social difficulties. A new aunt personifies the hang-ups of Victorian society; which is wise enough considering how far removed it is from today's children, but it would have been nicer to see more of Mrs. Darling herself, who plays such a vital role in the story.

A worse problem is a romantic subplot between Wendy and Peter that takes on vaguely disturbing tones by the end. It was quite missing from Barrie's book, and it makes you wonder if Hogan read a great deal of sexual subtext into the novel that Barrie, writing for children and their parents, wouldn't have dreamed of.

"Leave Hook to me!"

Luckily, things pick up once Peter finally takes the children away. We meet Captain Hook, played with elegant menace by Jason Isaacs (most recently Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Mel Gibson's vicious enemy in The Patriot). (Isaacs also, following long tradition, plays the father, making Hook the embodiment of the children's dread of his worries and disapproval and tricks.) We meet the Lost Boys, first the dupes of Tinkerbell's murderous jealousy of Wendy and then Wendy's loyal sons, playing at death and torture. Hook springs a trap on Wendy's brothers (and the younger one's brave Teddy bear) and the Indian princess Tiger Lily. Naturally, adventures follow.

The action seems just grim enough. Pirates get shot and stabbed and die, just as in the book and in boys' games everywhere, back when they still played pirates at least. Hook slips poison to Peter, with tragic results (tragic — but happily not final), and he threatens the other children dreadfully.

The music leaves a lot to be desired, swelling orchestra punctuated with 1980s-style synthesizers — think John Williams meets Mannhein Steamroller, if you dare. And cuteness creeps in at times, worst with Tinkerbell, who's never been done on screen as with as much fun as Barrie wrote her in the book. Barrie's Tinkerbell was "quite a common fairy," cursing like a sailor in a voice only Peter and the Lost Boys could hear. Tink here (played by French actress Ludivine Sagnier) seems an adaptation of the Disney version, with overdone googly-eyes as she mocks Wendy. In book and movie we're told fairies are either all bad or all good, since they're too tiny to have both qualities at once; Sagnier's Tinkerbell is just all snotty.

"Come away!"

But the leads fit their parts well. American actor Jeremy Sumpter captures Pan's mischief, if not quite enough of his self-centered cockiness. At 12 or 13 when the film was shot he's frankly too old for the part; and why do they always cast an American in this utterly English story? Still, he's good. Rachel Hurd-Wood is radiant as Wendy, as is Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense, Rushmore) as Mrs. Darling. The Lost Boys are great fun, and woefully underused.

Peter Pan is as close an adaptation of Barrie as we've seen, even if it loses its way here and there. It could have been more fun, and kept closer to Barrie's wonder, with fewer moments of young romantic tension and more of the boys being boys and Wendy mothering them — until selfless thoughts of her own mother and father begin to creep back into her head.

But all's not lost; after those clumsy first few minutes and until the romantic stuff thickens uncomfortably at the end, Peter Pan the movie draw you in here and there with the beauty of the Neverlands, the grim threat of the pirates, and Peter and the Lost Boys' innocent, heartless joy.

Shane Ivey is managing editor of RevolutionSF.

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