"All children, except one, grow up . . ." So begins J.M. Barrie's classic children's tale about the boy who defiantly refuses to grow up and the girl who is torn between remaining a child with him or accepting the inevitable passage into adulthood. Adapted from Barrie's own 1904 stage play, the 1911 novel of Peter Pan is a fable at once innocent and dark, benign and frightening, fantastical and rooted in the deepest possible psychological truths. The innumerable stage productions, performed both on and off Broadway for nearly a century, have deliberately avoided the novel's more sobering psychological undercurrents, opting instead for a more kid-friendly interpretation.
Australian director/co-screenwriter P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding, My Best Friend's Wedding) returned to the original source material when conceiving his screen version -- the first live-action version of the film since the silent era (a Disney animated movie was released in 1953). Given the unexpectedly fertile emotional terrain that he mines here, it is tempting to review the film from the perspective of an adult moviegoer. That would be unfair, of course, given that the target audience for this PG-rated film is children. And, in fact, the film works on two wholly different psychological levels.
Children who attend the movie will be oblivious to anything but the grand adventure they see on the screen: Peter (Jeremy Sumpter, of Frailty) somersaulting through the air, teaching Wendy (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) and her brothers to fly; Tinkerbell (French actress Ludivine Sagnier of Swimming Pool fame) darting about, leaving a trail of fairy dust in her wake; the children's repeated clashes with the pirates; the menacing Captain Hook (a superb Jason Isaacs). Most adults who take their children to see the film will not be expecting -- nor necessarily even wanting -- the sophisticated, psychologically complex story that unfolds before them, yet it is precisely that cerebral element that will make the film interesting to many adults who don't have children.
The film provides solid entertainment for young viewers, even as it fails to deliver any real sense of wonder or magic. The aspect youngsters may enjoy most -- i.e., the special effects, particularly Peter's flying -- look incredibly fake to an adult eye. Peter whizzes by at such a frenetic and high speed that you can't even focus on him. For the flying to work, it has to be convincing, and here it's not. The filmmakers have adopted the Spider-Man approach, making the special effects the least convincing aspect of the movie.
Tinkerbell is another disappointment. She darts about like a Fourth of July sparkler but contributes as much as a gnat would to the story. Squishing up her face, contorting her body and emitting cutesy squeaking sounds, she appears in miniature, bathed in yellow light, but her relationship with Peter never feels like an integral part of the story.
You don't have to be a feminist -- or a psychologist -- to appreciate that this Peter Pan presents the male of the species as either a little boy who steadfastly resists growing up or as a conniving adult man (Captain Hook) who lies to and cheats women in order to get what he wants. Emotionally, both characters exist in a state of arrested development (Hook is also just a lost little boy, pining for a mother).
The performances are a key reason the film works as well as it does. Isaacs is terrific as Hook, playing him straight, rather self-reflective and, at times, terribly sexy (something only adult viewers will notice). Looking like a young Kate Beckinsale, Hurd-Wood is marvelous as Wendy, a girl just on the cusp of adolescence, caught between her desire to remain a child forever and her acceptance -- or perhaps resignation -- that she must mature into womanhood.
With an impish smile playing on his lips and a faraway look intermittently clouding his face, Sumpter exemplifies the insouciant, "me first" attitude of the male who steadfastly refuses to grow up. This is definitely a boy who is not ready to put away childish things. A key component of Peter's character is that, in the words of Hook, "he cannot love. It is part of his riddle." (At one point, Peter angrily tells Wendy, "Take your feelings and go home.") It is an aspect of Peter's personality not usually emphasized in child-friendly stage productions, yet it is integral to the story that Barrie wanted to tell.
For all its faults -- chiefly the poorly utilized special and visual effects (and not enough of the crocodile) -- this Peter Pan reflects many of the psychological undercurrents that make Barrie's original work so enthralling. Good, whereas it might have been great, the film has to please both youngsters and adults. It fails to satisfy either group entirely but presents such a different and interesting take on Peter that it cannot be dismissed as a simple children's adventure story. Composer James Newton Howard contributes one of this year's most beautiful scores.
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