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Peter Pan   B-

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: P.J. Hogan
Writers: P.J. Hogan, Michael Goldenberg (based on the books by J.M. Barrie)
Cast: Jason Isaacs, Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lynn Redgrave, Olivia Williams, Harry Newell, Freddie Popplewell, Ludivine Sagnier.

Review by Rob Vaux

Peter Pan is one of those works with which everyone is familiar but very few have actually read. Most of us (this critic included) know it from either the boomer-beloved Disney cartoon or one of countless stage productions (invariably featuring a petit woman with gymnastic training in the title role). P.J. Hogan's ambitious holiday film endeavors to change that -- to return the character to his roots and do justice to J.M. Barrie's original text. There's a lot of cultural baggage to wade through, but thanks to the strength of the filmmakers' convictions and a very game cast, Peter Pan survives a most distressing case of over-production.

The origins of Barrie's little boy who wouldn't grow up are quite fragmented. Peter initially appeared in the novel The White Bird before morphing into a London stage play in 1904. The first formal manuscript, Peter and Wendy, saw print in 1911, and the play itself was published in 1928 after a considerable period of revisions (and on-stage productions). Writer Andrew Birkin collected the notes and drafts into a "comprehensive" volume, which the filmmakers here have used as their bible. Their devotion comes out primarily in Peter Pan's subtext, which is far richer (and darker) than many may expect. There's a lot of Pan in this Peter, played with a good combination of mischief and recklessness by Jeremy Sumpter. Ensconced in his fairy tale kingdom of Neverland, with his best pals the Lost Boys to hang out with and the villainous Captain Hook (Jason Isaacs) to fight, he has everything a perpetual prepubescent could want. Yet his sense of play is tinged with savagery -- unbound by rules or restraints, and just bloodthirsty enough to give us pause while enjoying his revels.

It's also coupled with the first hints of sexuality, as he discovers the enchanting Wendy Darling (Rachel Hurd-Wood) in the depths of Edwardian London. Wendy's a natural storyteller, thrilling her brothers with tales of pirates and princesses. When her family insists that she put aside childish things and begin preparations for womanhood, Peter intervenes, whisking her and her brothers off to Neverland to share in his adventures. But his infatuation contains a wicked catch. Having vowed to remain a child forever, he cannot care for Wendy in any real way, for what does a boy know of true love? Hook, forever envious of Peter's youth and strength, sees that dilemma as the key to finally destroying him.

It's in such themes that Peter Pan really ensnares us. Hogan adroitly balances Sumpter's darker urges with his free spirit, making Peter's state at once supremely enviable and something you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Hook and Wendy dance carefully around him, boosted by a pair of actors who deftly understand their respective parts. Isaacs tempers Hook's flamboyant villainy with a streak of pathos, while Hurd-Wood (making her film debut) brings uncanny wisdom to a girl longing for eternal childhood, but aware of its substantial price. Hogan adds some significant Freudian overtones into the mix as well (Isaacs also plays Wendy's father, Mr. Darling), and yet none of the subtleties interfere with the fairytale fun on the surface. Parents with kids needn't worry: there's plenty of PG excitement and adventure to make the wee ones happy, and the deeper stuff should remain comfortably over their heads.

The pity is that all of these fine elements are weighed down by garish visuals that indulge in the worst impulses of the Hollywood blockbuster. The scenery is painted in vivid colors, intended to evoke childhood imagination, but achieving little more than a headache for the audience. Neverland rarely attains any plausibility, feeling too much like a sound stage to suspend our disbelief, and the effects -- including such key pieces as the children's flight through London and the giant crocodile who hungers for Hook tartar -- smack of empty artifice. None of it conjures the sort of wonder that the cast provides almost whole cloth, and while the trappings never overwhelm the movie, they often prove too distracting to let it really soar. Peter Pan aims for something of real merit -- no small task considering its slippery-yet-iconic source. Sad, then, that its flashiness is so bright; had the film toned it down just a bit, it might have had us without qualification. Nevertheless, it adds an honorable chapter to Barrie's legacy, something everyone involved should be proud of. Like all good Christmas presents, Peter Pan keeps the best parts beneath the wrapping; dig deep enough, and it will reward the effort.

Review published 12.27.2003.

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