A sprightly adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic, this 21st century Peter Pan is chockfull of visual delights, witty asides and genuine magic. Plus it has luminous Rachel Hurd Wood as arguably the screen’s greatest Wendy. Though largely faithful to Barrie’s text, P.J. Hogan’s decision to twist the story into a fable about young Wendy’s blossoming sexuality proved controversial for some. Here, Wendy is a spirited adolescent who yearns for adventure and excitement. Mr. and Mrs. Darling (Jason Isaacs and Olivia Williams) worry their daughter is too reckless for the grown-up world. After Wendy outrages her schoolteacher with an innocent drawing (Peter Pan hovering over her bed), and creates chaos at her father’s office, Mr. Darling tries to reign her in. The following night, Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) flies inside her bedroom with fairy Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier) and persuades Wendy to come away with him to a land where children never grow up. Peter whisks Wendy and her brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) off to Never Land where they meet the Lost Boys, rescue Princess Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray) and tangle with pirates, mermaids, the crocodile who swallowed a ticking clock and of course the dreaded, Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs again).
From Herbert Brenon’s silent movie Peter Pan (1924) and the classic Disney animation of 1953, to the Russian Piter Pen (1987), every version carries a glimmer of enchantment because the original story is so beautifully structured, overflowing with memorable incidents. Here, Hogan maintains a swashbuckling pace (the children’s flight into outer space, their breathless escape from the hungry crocodile following the rescue of Tiger Lily, and Peter’s aerial acrobatics are all highlights), keeps performances peppy from youngsters and veterans (including welcome appearances from Lynn Redgrave as Wendy’s aunt and Richard Briers as Smee), and offers a fresh take on several familiar scenes. He ingeniously reworks the “I do believe in fairies” sequence, which traditionally relies on audience participation, by cross-cutting between several characters across Never Land and London. Everyone, even Wendy’s parents and Mr. Darling’s boss (Geoffrey Palmer) is compelled to clap their hands and revive Tinkerbell. It’s a moment to make you stand up and cheer.
Never Land dazzles onscreen thanks to the wizardry of ILM. Peter’s arrival awakens the lush, jungle paradise into a display of eye-popping colours, while shadowy blues daub the pirates’ lair. Ace cinematographer Donald McAlpine draws from our childhood dreams: a Christmas card vision of London; our young heroes streaking across a kaleidoscopic galaxy faster than the Millennium Falcon; children laughing as they bounce along candyfloss clouds amidst azure skies; Peter and Wendy floating through a forest lit by fairy lights. No rubber crocodiles here, the computer generated beastie is a suitably slimy and monstrous apparition.
The portrayal of Peter Pan as a capricious daredevil, so caught up in his “awfully great adventure” he sometimes forgets names, people and whatever he’s doing, rings true. Jeremy Sumpter is suitably cocky and heroic, if occasionally prone to vacant stares and uncertain line readings. An American Peter Pan isn’t entirely objectionable. It adds another layer, a suggestion of brash, new world, pioneer spirit shaking up staid, Victorian England. Like many young boys, Peter Pan is all about the moment. The giddy rush of newfound joy that disappears just as quickly. This is why Hogan’s reworked climax, wherein Wendy revives a stricken Peter by declaring her love, doesn’t feel tacked on and actually merges well with Barrie’s sense of melancholy. Peter is revitalized by that first flush of young love, a sense of something permanent, but it cannot last. All children grow up except one. Wendy is destined to grow up loving a boy who can never truly reciprocate those feelings.
Missing from this film, as with the other versions, are the Never Bird, Wendy’s pet wolf, and the circular stalking scene (a brilliant visual gag from Barrie’s stage play where pirates stalk Lost Boys, Indians stalk pirates, wild animals stalk Indians and so on). Although Pan fans would love seeing them, their absence does not pose a problem. One omission that is regrettable is the original conclusion, included as an extra on the DVD. Here, Peter returns to encounter the grownup Wendy (Saffron Burrows - who serves as narrator) in a gracefully sad, yet sweet natured scene. Preview audiences may have rejected it as too downbeat for a children’s film, but the closing scene remains a crucial part of Barrie’s play and befits Hogan’s re-centring of the narrative around Wendy. It should have stayed in the movie.
Performance-wise, though Sumpter wavers, everyone else remains pitch perfect. Jason Isaacs excels in his dual roles: hapless, but caring as Mr. Darling and seething menace as Captain Hook. You really believe he’d gut the cocky, little superbrat if he had the chance. French superstar Ludivine Sagnier is fantastically sexy and funny as Tinkerbell, improvising gags such as miming her guts spilling out. The engaging making of documentary illustrates just how much Sagnier brought to her role as the pouting pixie, and look out for little Carsen Gray translating some choice Native American insults she delivers as Tiger Lily. The children all perform with zest and humour, lacking the stage school affectations of the Harry Potter cast. James Newton Howard supplies a bouncy score (since replayed in a number of Disney commercials. What’s up with that?)
And then there’s Rachel Hurd Wood. Here Wendy retains her maternal warmth, but she’s also intelligent, resourceful and brave, knows a thing or two about pirate galleons and can handles a sword like a junior musketeer. What pint-sized hero wouldn’t want her for a girlfriend? Wood leaps off the screen, a movie star in the making. Whether young or old its easy for the audience to fall in love with her.
The psychosexual undercurrents to Wendy’s odyssey are there onscreen, but images such as Wendy and Peter embracing as they float through the fairy lit forest are more romantic than sleazy, as innocent as love’s young dream. Of course that’s one interpretation. At the screening this writer attended, a six-year-old girl yelped: “They’re having sex!” much to the embarrassment of every grownup in the room.