Peter Pan

(2003) *** 1/2 Pg
113 min. Universal Pictures. Director: P.J. Hogan. Cast: Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lynn Redgrave, Richard Briers.

In the 101 years since Peter Pan's first, cameo appearance in a J.M. Barrie novel, no live-action sound feature has been made which, simply, tells the tale of Peter Pan. While a 1924 silent version has retreated into cineaste obscurity, Walt Disney's 1953 animated feature charged forward as the official, white-bread version. The fifties also saw the musical stage version (starring Mary Martin as Pan) which many consider the live-action gospel of Pan. The nineties saw Steven Spielberg's misstepping, deconstructivist Hook. Now, P.J. Hogan has revived the story as a live-action feature starring, for the first time, a real live boy as Peter Pan, and the results, if flawed, crackle with the electricity of J.M. Barrie's always theatrical invention.

The full story of Peter Pan first emerged as a stage play in 1904, and Barrie revised it incessantly over the years (the most famous revision being the 1911 novella which now graces many a bookshelf). Hogan synthesizes many of the stage traditions into his screenplay, while trading on the knowledge of more recent, more familiar versions and plundering the best ideas from each. The result is a smart, bittersweet take on the Peter Pan mythology.

Jeremy Sumpter, so pivotally effective in Bill Paxton's Frailty, plays the kid who refuses to grow up, complete with lisp and playground physicality. His insolent, animalistic spark and terror at feelings of growth give Pan a tender intensity. As insistent as Peter is to remain in Neverland, he finds himself drawn to a row house in Edwardian London, where a girl named Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) tells adventure stories to her two brothers. Hurd-Wood makes an ideal Wendy: lovely, strong, desirous, on the cusp of womanhood. When Wendy's adult family (Jason Isaacs, Olivia Williams, and Lynn Redgrave as the newly created Aunt Millicent) presses her into womanhood, they open the symbolic window for Peter Pan. His invitation to eternal childhood adventure (and grudging willingness to let Wendy's brothers tag along) is music to Wendy's ears, and the film takes off into its colorfully hyper-stylized air.

Hogan has the benefit of a great yarn, and the authority of someone who knows of what he speaks. He stays true to the familiar elements of Barrie's story (with just enough narration by Saffron Burrows): dirty pirate men versus dirty Lost Boys, pirate ships and forest hideouts, pixie dust and crocodiles (Hogan even incorporates, unobtrusively, two songs co-credited to Barrie). To his credit, Hogan also taps ideas largely ignored by earlier versions. As a story stretched taut between childhood and ripe adulthood, Peter Pan invites fairy-tale consideration of kid-repulsive, adolescent-alluring, always mysterious eroticism. With elegant restraint, Hogan drapes the story in pubescent promise with danger in its folds, making Pan, in verdant trappings and romantic themes, a child's analogue to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Mr. Darling and Captain Hook--two sides of the same threatening adult-world coin--are both played by Jason Isaacs in adherence to stage tradition (the venerable Richard Briers also plays stage-cagey, muttering amusing one-liners as Hook's sidekick Smee). Isaac's darkly menacing Hook suggests that his vulnerability is not merely, as in previous versions, pathetic, but rather emotionally invested in the bizarre machinery of someone else's dream. Whether that dream is Peter's or Wendy's (or, miraculously, both) is left open to interpretation, but a scene in which Hook regards Peter and Wendy's skydancing courtship and comiserates with Ludivine Sagnier's fervent, abandoned fairy Tinkerbell ("O evil day...Hook is all alone") is a resonant revelation. Later, the jilted Hook purrs to Wendy, "My new obsession is you."

Hogan also emphasizes how the genders find themselves at odds as hormones begin to pluck their strings. Wendy, drummed into service as mother to the Lost Boys and her own brothers, plays house with Peter, but before long, she insists he share his feelings, if any. The eternal boy replies to the burgeoning woman, "You can't catch me and make me a man!" Sumpter and Hurd-Wood share a warm and surprising chemistry, and Hogan acknowledges Wendy as Pan's equal, if not better. When Pan approvingly hands over a sword to the formidable girl, he says with a devilish smile, "Promise me one thing. Leave Hook to me."

Ultimately, Peter Pan is about that adventurous clash. Swordfights in the old-fashioned Flynn mode are good fun (Hook: "Prepare to meet thy doom!" Peter: Have at thee!"), and kids warmed up by Pirates of the Caribbean will be prepared for the black-comic touches (a peg-legged parrot and ruthless murders by Hook). Pointedly, storytelling is greatly prized in Neverland, and Hogan's fast-paced approach, if reckless in the early pacing, buys him the quieter scenes he endearingly indulges in the second act. Fully saturated with effects (and with colors through-composed in a computer), this version sometimes tries too hard to be magical, but like life or death, it's an awfully big adventure.

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