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Peter Pan (2003) Print E-mail
Thursday, 25 December 2003
"Peter Pan" is exactly the movie it should be: beautiful, exciting, dream-like, scary and funny. It even includes the wisps of tragedy that cling to the boy who wouldn't grow up. It's as perfect a realization of a beloved work as are the "Lord of the Rings" movies; it's not just one of the best movies of 2003, but the best live-action family movie in what seems like decades. Every aspect of the movie is splendidly realized, from performances through production and costume design to photography, sound and special effects. And it's as light and graceful as Peter Pan himself, seemingly without any strain at all.

James M. Barrie was a popular writer of about a hundred years ago, a warm-hearted man who never had any children of whose own, but who willingly adopted five neighbor children who were left without parents. He first created Peter Pan as a character in a story told in one of his novels, then in 1904, produced a lavish play which has been popular for a hundred years. In 1911, he turned "Peter Pan" into a novel, "Peter and Wendy," and brought back the character in "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens." (Famous actress Wendy Barrie was his goddaughter, named after the Wendy in the story; she adopted his last name as her own.)

In 1924, the first full-length live-action movie of "Peter Pan" was produced; this is the second. There's a famous musical version which most notably starred Mary Martin as Peter (in almost all stage productions and the 1924 movie, Peter has been played by a woman) and Cyril Ritchard as the dastardly Captain Hook. And there's the fine Disney animated film of fifty years ago.

Sooner or later, someone was bound to make a live-action feature again; surely this new version was prompted by the success of both the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" franchises. And just as surely, it could have turned out a smirking, silly trifle. Fortunately, in the hands of director P.J. Hogan ("My Best Friend's Wedding") it's a nearly unalloyed triumph. Working from a script by himself and Michael Goldenberg, Hogan has brought great care and exemplary craft to the production of this big-scale, romantic adventure.

The stunning look of "Peter Pan" -- several shots were so beautiful I gasped -- was created by production designer Roger Ford, who used painters of the same period as the original play for the basis of his design. In particular, Hogan cites John William Waterhouse and Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones as his inspiration, but that incandescent blue sky scudding with pink clouds can only have come from Maxfield Parrish.

In London, Wendy Darling (the debuting Rachel Hurd-Wood) lives with her mother (Olivia Williams) and father (Jason Isaacs) and younger brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) in a pleasant town house. Their attentive, loving nanny is a St. Bernard called Nana, and they are periodically visited by their strait-laced, conventional Aunt Millicent (Lynn Redgrave), a character not found in Barrie, but who fits in well.
Wendy delights her brothers with tales of the daring Peter Pan and his arch-nemesis, pirate Captain Hook. But when Nana causes a fuss -- Aunt Millicent claims "a dog for a nurse has lowered the tone of the whole neighborhood" -- Mr. Darling is upset and insists Nana be put in the back yard. And that 12-year-old Wendy must become a woman.

But there are other events. Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter), who we see is real, is a flying boy who unknown to her loves Wendy's stories, too. His detached shadow ends up in a dresser drawer, so he returns with his tiny sparkling fairy friend Tinker Bell (Ludivine Sagnier, from "Swimming Pool") to retrieve the playful shadow. Trying to attach it with a bar of soap rouses Wendy, who's astonished and delighted to meet the impish, boastful Peter. "Oh the cleverness of me!" Peter exults.

Peter invites Wendy to fly with him to Neverland, and she insists on her brothers accompanying them. Peter douses them all with pixie dust (shaken from an outraged Tinker Bell), tells them to think happy thoughts, and they fly out the window over sleeping London. Into the sky, filled with planets, they zoom, then take the first star on the right, and straight on to morning.

The familiar story hits all the marks: we meet the wicked, stylish Captain James Hook (also Isaacs), whose right hand Peter long ago flung to a crocodile (with a clock in its stomach). The ticking crock has been lurking around ever since; it has developed a taste for Hook, and wants the rest of him. Hook's ship "Jolly Roger" is manned by a scurvy crew who are really a lot like boys themselves. His aide is the cheerful, dim-witted Smee (Richard Briers), who notices that the ice-bound "Jolly Roger" has just thawed out: Peter Pan must be back in Neverland.

Peter's friends, the Lost Boys, are tricked by Tink into believing the airborne Wendy is a Wendybird, and they bring her down with an arrow. The arriving Peter is outraged -- Wendy was to be their mother! he exclaims. The crestfallen Lost Boys mutter among themselves. "Tragic," one says. "Awful," says another, while a third adds, "Good shot, though."

There are mermaids (rather scary) and a bunch of tame Indians whose princess Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray) is sweet on a shocked, delighted John. All along, Hook tries to capture Peter, first in a big castle by the sea, where its stone dragon is echoed by the ticking crocodile, which is still after Hook. The pirate chief can be charming in an oily way, and at different times tries to get Tink and Wendy to do his evil bidding.

There are crises -- at one time Tinker Bell is on the verge of dying (on stage, Peter urged the audience to join him in a chorus of "I do believe in fairies! I do! I do!"), and at another point, so is Peter. He infuriates Hook by grinning, "Death must be an awfully big adventure" and winter briefly descends on Neverland until Peter springs back to youthful joy and life.

And there is the Big Climax as Peter and Hook cross swords for what will be the last time. Hogan has worked a surprising change here: Hook grabs Tinker Bell and douses himself with pixie dust; thinking what are happy thoughts for a pirate (plague, Blackbeard, puppy blood, etc.) he soars into the skies in pursuit of Peter Pan.
But of course, there is a happy ending for all the forces of good, including the Lost Boys. (And the crocodile.) Peter tells the sorrowful Wendy that "I want always to be a boy and have fun!" But he is left alone in Neverland, the spirit of youth personified with all its virtues and its flaws. He'll always be a joyous sprite, clever, agile and delightful, but his memory fades swiftly: he's caught in an eternal now.

"Peter Pan" is a wonderful movie, but despite generating a lot of laughter here and there, mostly in the dialog (largely straight from Barrie), it's also quite dark and sinister at times. Hook is a genuine menace; he doesn't merely want to cross swords with that infuriating boy, he wants to kill him: "Proud and insolent youth," he cries at the outset of their last battle, "prepare to meet thy doom!" He can't stand it that Peter demeans him in front of his crew; when he sees Wendy and Peter dancing off the ground in the forest, he's desolate: "Hook is all alone," he mourns to Tinker Bell. And at the end, the chant that finally proves his undoing is "old, alone, done for."

The movie, of course, is crammed with special effects, perhaps a bit too many at times -- I'm not sure we needed to see a sky full of planets, though it's a beautiful sight. But all the effects, by a large team, are brilliantly done, including the flying. It's an astonishing-looking film, unique in its visual styling. After you see the film, you'd recognize three frames of it anywhere.

Even the sound rises to the occasion. The surround speakers are used to great effect, at least once the children and Peter reach Neverland. The forest whispers quietly around us, the "Jolly Roger" creaks and groans under its load of ice. When Hook draws a lock of hair over his, well, hook, it sighs in a realistic way. Even the sound of a shadow trapped in a drawer seems exactly right. Ben Osmo was in charge of the sound overall. And the grand, sweeping score is by James Newton Howard.

The photography is by the great Donald McAlpine, who ordinarily works with more realistic material, but here provides what could be illustrations for the greatest edition of "Peter and Wendy" ever published.

The cast is highlighted by Jason Isaacs who, as tradition has it, plays both the scoundrel Captain Hook and hapless Mr. Darling, who seems somewhat piratical as he orders Wendy to grow up. Olivia Williams is beautiful as Mrs. Darling, and Lynn Redgrave a delight as Aunt Millicent; she's a slave to the rules of society, but she does read "The War of the Worlds" when she's alone. There's a trace of the romantic in her.

Jeremy Sumpter is astonishing as Peter Pan. He was one of the sons in “Frailty,” but there wasn’t anything exceptional about him. There is here. He’s angelic and devilish, not just by turns, but simultaneously – there should be something just a bit scary about Peter Pan’s exuberance. Few kids want to BE Peter Pan, but all kids want to have him as a best friend, the kind we know we’ll leave behind as we grow up. Sumpter is graceful and athletic – we can believe that he can take on full-grown Hook in a swordfight even while armed with only a knife himself. And most of all, we can believe it when he flies.

Some will be surprised to see that the movie is dedicated to Dodi Al Fayed, who died in that car wreck with Princess Diana. His father, Mohamaed Al Fayed, is one of the executive producers of "Peter Pan."

"Peter Pan" is the movie that Spielberg's ill-starred "Hook" should have but never could have been. There was just too much "sophistication" brought to that project, and Dustin Hoffman's Captain Hook was too much a figure of fun. The sleek Isaacs (the bad guy in "The Patriot") is perfect casting here, and one of the most memorable parts of this memorable movie. If you know any kids, do yourself a treat this holiday season, and take them -- and you -- to "Peter Pan."

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