Rated PG - Running Time: 1:53 - Released 12/25/03

Peter Pan, the fanciful tale of a boy who doesn’t want to grow up, was first written as a play in 1904 by Scottish author and playwright James Matthew Barrie (who apparently adapted it from the bedtime stories he told to his five adopted sons), and embellished into a book in 1911. One of the most famous children’s stories of all time, Barrie’s tale has been adapted, rewritten, reinterpreted, set to music, and produced no less than twelve times for the big and little screen, ranging from filmed stage productions, musicals, TV versions in Portuguese, Japanese, and Russian, movies starring Mary Martin, Mia Farrow, and Cathy Rigby, and of course the famous 1953 cartoon by Walt Disney Pictures. It has even spawned what could be called sequels, such as the 1991 Spielberg-directed Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman vehicle Hook and the conventionally animated Disney cartoon Return To Never Land, released just under 2 years ago. And that’s saying nothing about the many live theatre productions of it which continue all over the world to this day. Now, on the centennial anniversary of the original stage show, we have the latest definitive version, directed by P.J. Hogan (My Best Friend’s Wedding) from an adaptation by Hogan and Michael Goldenberg. Apparently, Disney originally intended to co-produce the film, but pulled out during contract negotiations. Hogan’s version, which adheres more closely to the original text than most of its predecessors, has been criticized by some (including Barrie’s family) as being too “adult,” but it’s still pretty tame by today’s standards. There is a detectable hint of romantic chemistry between Peter and Wendy, but it’s not as if they’re gettin’ it on.

On the contrary, Hogan’s version is childlike, fantastic, and colorful, and ably captures the strange poetry of Barrie’s text. It is notable that Peter is played in this production by a boy (14-year-old Jeremy Sumpter); perhaps the long-standing and confusing tradition of casting flat-chested petite women in the role has finally passed. Sumpter is adequately boyish as Peter, and his female co-star (newcomer Rachel Hurd-Wood) makes a suitably whimsical Wendy. Playing the dual roles of Wendy’s father, Mr. Darling, and Peter’s nemesis, Captain James Hook, is Jason Isaacs, who will probably be most recognizable to children in the audience as the man who played Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets. Isaacs is wild-eyed and fanciful as Hook, and equally boring and ineffectual as Darling; the contrast is intended, since the story is supposed to be a dreamlike situation in which Wendy and her brothers confuse people and events from real life with the surrealistic events on the pirate- and Indian-inhabited island of Never Land.

The film is most enjoyable in that setting, of course; Hogan’s treatment of Never Land is fairly bursting with wonder and magic, using every color of the rainbow and all the saturation and sweetening techniques currently available in the most state-of-the-art computer technology. Indeed, everything and everyone on the island seems bathed in a heavenly glow, with hard edges softened and colors almost unbelievably rich, and the ornery nature of Peter’s diminutive fairy friend Tinkerbell (played by French actress Ludivine Sagnier) is countered beautifully by her healthful, warm appearance as she is almost always seen in a glow of rich golden light. Moreover, the short scene where Peter and the Darling children travel from London to his fantastic home is a mind-blowing excursion through the starry night sky and between the glowing, colorful planets of the solar system.

The story of the film is pretty much standard, with Wendy and her younger brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) being whisked off one night from their London home to Never Land, Wendy being appointed surrogate mother and storyteller not only by Peter and the lost boys but by Hook and his band of bumbling pirates, and Tinkerbell’s heroism saving Peter and, ultimately, Wendy and the others, from Hook’s dastardly plan. Also included are mermaids, who appear quite sinister in this version, and strangest of all, Native American Indians, whose princess Tiger Lily (Carsen Gray) serves as the key to Peter’s friendly relationship with the tribe. Appearing in supporting roles are Olivia Williams as Mrs. Darling, Lynn Redgrave as the children’s Aunt Millicent, and Richard Briers as Hook’s not-all-that-scurvy first mate, Smee.

Do we really need another version of Peter Pan? Well… I suppose now that computer-generated effects rule the day, we will see more and more new versions of classic movies, so that we can marvel at the beautiful cartoons before us that pass themselves off as real life. There’s no question that fantasy stories like this benefit from the unbelievably wondrous potential of computer graphics. Maybe eventually we won’t even need actors. ****

Copyright 2004 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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