Peter Pan
directed by P.J. Hogan
(Universal, 2003)

Peter Pan, when I was growing up, meant the Disney cartoon -- the 1960 version starring Mary Martin as Pan just never really clicked for me, but Disney's 1953 animated version seemed to tell the story right. (Elements of sexuality and an extremely bad portrayal of Indians never sunk in 'til I was much older.) But now I see I was wrong, just in time to see it really done properly.

The central figure of the story is, of course, Peter, and 14-year-old Jeremy Sumpter was a stroke of casting genius. First, it's nice to see Peter played by a boy for a change. But also, Sumpter brings to the role an enviable wildness and exuberance that makes you believe the boy can fly.

One imagines Peter as a character of brash, unabashed delight, taking pleasure in the simplest of things and shrugging off all worries and fears. Not so here, where Sumpter gives the character some depth: stubborn, certainly, and even a bit sullen at times, and hinting broadly of a latent sensuality. He might be stuck forever as a boy, but that boy is about 12 or 13, keep in mind. And Wendy, just shy of 13 herself, causes all sorts of confusion in the young, otherworldly and unworldly boy.

Ah, Wendy. Rachel Hurd-Wood makes her acting debut as the young Wendy Darling, and again, the decision to cast an actual 13-year-old girl must be commended. Hurd-Wood is everything Wendy should be, including wide-eyed excitement, young beauty, maternal protectiveness and an overactive sense of responsibility, a reluctance to grow up and, too, a growing realization that boys (especially Peter) are cute.

More so even than the fairies around her, Hurd-Wood as Wendy fills Neverland with a wonderful glow. Equally strong, although with lesser roles, are screen newcomers Harry Newell and Freddie Popplewell as John and Michael Darling, Wendy's younger brothers who embrace the adventure of Neverland with little thought of the things they left behind. The rigid Mr. Darling and compassionate Mrs. Darling (Jason Isaacs and Olivia Williams) slip perfectly into roles that typically serve mostly to bookend the children's grand adventure. Lynn Redgrave is suitably proper and whimsical as Aunt Millicent, but the part (created especially for the film) still seems somewhat superfluous.

Kudos all around to the Lost Boys, as well as Carsen Gray as the young but fiery Tiger Lily. French actress Ludivine Sagnier plays Tinkerbell as a saucy, jealous and oft-times malicious sprite -- and it's fitting, considering the other dangers (you'll the love the brief scene with the mermaids) that lurk among the fey of Neverland. The scene where a widespread belief in fairies is the only thing that can rescue Tink from the brink has often, in my view, been silly or overly sentimental. Here, it's magical, spellbinding and real.

And then there are the pirates. Jason Isaacs fills the screen with his ruthless and vengeful Capt. Hook, bringing plenty of swash, buckle, charisma and mayhem to every scene. For all his colorful villainy, it's hard not to like the irredeemable cutthroat. Richard Briers as Mr. Smee is witty and jolly, for a pirate.

Sets, scenery and special effects are spectacular throughout, never overwhelming the story or actors while making Neverland a believable place for the tale to unfold ... although the animatronic parrot could have been discarded without anyone shedding a tear.

Peter Pan puts the magic back in the story, but it doesn't shy away from the sharp edges and dark corners of life, either. The movie is a celebration of joyful living, but it's a little sad, too -- it's not that Peter doesn't want to grow up, he doesn't want to want to grow up. And his inability to come to terms with his own inner desire for a home and parents is both tender and touching. You have to wonder, at the end, just what it is he's flying back to.

by Tom Knapp
4 February 2006

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