The audacity of a flying Captain Hook aside, this first live-action “Peter Pan” of the sound film era is a sober, straightforward and quite faithful adaptation of Scottish author J.M. Barrie’s 99-year-old tale about the adventure-loving boy who won’t grow up. Handsome, respectable and well cast, elaborate production lacks the excitement and magic that would elevate the film to beloved status, and sheer abundance of CGI work weighs on it too heavily. But kids worldwide, most of whom will be exposed to the story for the first time, should rep an enthusiastic audience for the high-flying derring-do and pirate deviltry, spelling a healthy if not soaring B.O. future.
Co-producer Lucy Fisher two decades ago acquired the rights to the Barrie “Pan” properties, which include not only the 1904 play but the eventual novel, “Peter and Wendy,” published seven years later. The past 20 years have served up the dreadful but successful “Hook,” as well as years of touring legit productions of the delightful musical starring Cathy Rigby and others who have kept the franchise name alive for fresh generations.
Many baby boomer parents have no doubt shown their kids the breezy 1953 Disney animated feature, not to mention videos of that generation’s most cherished version, the TV special of the musical starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard. For completists, the 1924 silent film of the story still exists as well.
To his credit, and with a measure of seriousness not present in his popular comedies “Muriel’s Wedding” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” director-co-writer P.J. Hogan, working from a script first penned by Michael Goldenberg (“Contact”), has leaned more toward fidelity to his literary sources than to pandering to the presumed dumbed-down tastes of the contempo kiddy audience. A literary quality informs the narration and flow of events that may create a restlessness in the troops from time to time, although spectacular action and effects come to the rescue with such regularity that the sweep of the story will pull along most viewers, young and old.
For grown-ups, there is also the fresh spectacle of witnessing Peter Pan played by a boy. Although the film walks a very fine line with it, an undeniable cusp-of-adolescence romantic/sexual subcurrent courses through the Peter-Wendy relationship. Given the characters’ ages and extreme attractiveness, this is quite plausible, but it is also vaguely unsettling given its complete absence from previous versions, and undeniably brings a new component to the debate over whether or not to remain a child.
In the warmly inviting nursery of the Darling family townhouse in Edwardian Bloomsbury, 12-year-old Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) regales her younger brothers John (Harry Newell) and Michael (Freddie Popplewell) with tales of Peter Pan and the pirates while the real boy lurks about outside the window. Recovering his errant shadow, Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) in short order convinces Wendy to fly off with him to Neverland for endless adventure and freedom from responsibilities, a decision she makes just after her parents (Jason Isaacs and Olivia Williams) and spinster Aunt Millicent (a freshly coined character vigorously played by Lynn Redgrave) inform her that it’s time she grew up.
After quickly teaching the three Darling sprigs to fly, courtesy of fairy dust from the endlessly prankish Tink (Ludivine Sagnier, this year’s French bombshell from “Swimming Pool”), Peter leads the kids on an outer space spin through a dizzyingly brilliant solar system seemingly composed of dozens of planets. Still, it’s hard not to recall Mary Martin’s “I’m Flying” during this sequence.
In Neverland, the pirates are waiting for spring while idling on board a massive ship encrusted by snow and ice. In his first scene, Hook (Isaacs, perfectly cast and following tradition by doubling as Mr. Darling) shows something of himself never before seen, his right hand stub, hookless before being harnessed. A briefly etched comic highlight is an animatronic peg-legged parrot belonging to Hook’s loyal friend Smee (a winning Richard Briers), while some eerie-looking, web-handed, Asiatic-looking mermaids are so effective that more with them would have been welcome.
As the film proceeds through the familiar plot highlights — the Tink-inspired shooting of the Wendy Bird by the Lost Boys, the pirates’ capture of Wendy and her brothers, Tink’s sacrifice of drinking poison meant for Peter and her resurrection via the communal chanting of “I do believe in fairies,” all leading up to the climactic shipboard battle between the pirates and Peter’s boys — the sense of earnest dedication inspires respect and even a reasonable amount of engagement.
Unfortunately, these responses are not surpassed by an infusion of glee and uninhibited fun that would imbue the film with a personality of its own strong enough o stir audiences to advanced levels of escapism, which is what “Peter Pan” is meant to do. Whatever else one can say about “Pirates of the Caribbean,” it did possess a certain goofy charm and irreverence when it came to genre conventions, even if the picture remains unthinkable without Johnny Depp.
This “Peter Pan” is distinct from any rendition of the story that could have been attempted previously due to the sophistication of the visual effects, a fact that cuts both ways. Since anything is now possible, Hogan can and does indulge in (literal) flights of fancy that produce the speed and flash to keep kids bug-eyed. He’s also able to combine scenic backgrounds to unusual effect: Influenced by the vibrantly colored paintings of the Romantic period, pic features verdant landscapes and canopies of bright hues to envelope the action in a resplendent lushness that extends from the womb of affluent London to the hidden enclaves of Neverland.
All the same, the combination of design, effects and backdrops that flaunt their drawn quality isn’t always seamless, and the special effects eventually call too much attention to themselves. Some of the flying has a forced, too-fast quality that recalls some of the jerky bouncing about in “Spider-man,” and lacks the grace and wonder of traditional wire work.
And when Hook, having managed to get sprinkled with some fairy dust himself, goes aloft for the grand finale duel with Peter, traditionalists will just check out; giving Hook anti-gravity powers removes his opponent’s key advantage over him. Decision comes off simply like a grandstanding move to give the audience something it’s not expecting.
Touched up with blond highlights and graced with a useful animal look in his face, Sumpter, who was very good in “Frailty,” is a bit in and out as Peter Pan. He looks just right and handles the action well, but there are moments when he seems not entirely there. He also falls a bit short in conveying the rambunctious inspirational qualities one expects from the fearless leader of the Lost Boys. All the same, this is supposed to be a Peter afflicted with at least a hint of doubt about his chosen role in life, an embryonically psychological Pan who at some point may find that life and love have passed him by.
The voluptuously visaged Hurd-Wood, who was discovered in a London open casting call, is a splendid Wendy, a girl more mature than the other sprigs who copes intelligently with the numerous crises and choices confronting her. Resisting any temptation to camp, Isaacs smartly and effectively plays Hook for real menace, his threat compounded by the chilling assortment of alternate hooks he can screw onto his stub. By contrast, his Mr. Darling is the wimpiest fellow in London, scarcely able to complete sentence, so one wonders what a beauty like Mrs. Darling, gracefully played by Olivia Williams, is doing with him.
Uttering squeaky gibberish, Sagnier mugs, prances and contorts herself as Tink in a manner that’s both cute and annoying; although her face is always her own, character seems otherwise animated at many moments.
Shot almost entirely in the Warner Roadshow Studios in Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, production looks sumptuous thanks especially to Roger Ford’s judiciously extravagant production design, Donald M. McAlpine’s lustrous lensing and Janet Patterson’s imaginative but not overdone costumes. James Newton Howard’s almost continuous score is properly supportive rather than overbearing.
Pic is dedicated to the late producer Dodi Al Fayed, whose father Mohamed exec produced.